The 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup is upon us with North America’s best ready to battle it out for the big prize.
Mexico and the United States have a historic stranglehold on this competition with the pair winning 14 of the 15 editions since its reform in 1991, including the last 10.
Canada are a growing force in this region thanks to the emergence of a number of young talents and the formation of the Canadian Premier League, while Costa Rica and Jamaica have enough talent within their ranks to at least give the favourites a scare.
But what about the individual players heading for the Gold Cup? This competition can be a breeding ground for young talent to flex their international muscles, while there are plenty of seasoned pros looking to make their mark.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 10 most exciting players at this summer’s Gold Cup.
10. Alberth Elis (Honduras)
- Club: Boavista
- Caps: 46
- Goals: 11
One of a host of players to leave MLS for Europe, Alberth Elis was a key figure in keeping Boavista in Liga NOS last season. The 25-year-old, who cost Boavista around £750,000, scored more goals (8) and provided more assists (6) than any other player at the club, helping As Panteras finish 13th.
Elis has a decent record at international level, too, scoring 11 goals in 46 caps so far, including one against Mexico during qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. His pace and dynamic dribbling will certainly give Honduras a lethal counter-attacking weapon this summer.
9. Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)
A name that’ll be familiar to most from his time with Arsenal, Joel Campbell heads into the Gold Cup on 99 caps and 19 goals for Costa Rica, leaving him 10th on the country’s all-time list for both metrics. It may come as a surprise to find out Campbell is still only 29 years old and although his career has been stalled by a mountain of loan spells, he is still a dynamic, unpredictable player who has a moment of genius up his sleeve.
8. Matthew Hoppe (United States)
Club: Schalke 04
Schalke suffered a miserable 2020/21 Bundesliga campaign, finishing bottom of the table with just three wins from 34 games while scoring 25 goals. But six of those goals were scored by emerging American talent, Matthew Hoppe, including a hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Hoffenheim in January, one of the few high points of Schalke’s season.
Hoppe is still uncapped at senior level by the United States, but Gregg Berhalter has taken a young squad to this tournament, full of players who have a point to prove. With the USMNT’s No.9 spot still up for grabs, this tournament presents a great chance for Hoppe to make a statement ahead of an important season in 2. Bundesliga.
7. Cyle Larin (Canada)
After a few years of struggle and loan spells following his move from Orlando City in 2018, Cyle Larin has finally found his form at Besiktas, scoring 23 goals across all competitions last season to help the club to a league and cup double.
Larin has been in prolific form at international level recently, too, and he’s one of a number of players that make this Canada side a dark horse for the tournament. Speed, skill and ultimate composure in front of goal, Larin might well make a bid for top scorer at this competition.
6. Gianluca Busio (United States)
Club: Sporting Kansas City
Like Hoppe, Gianluca Busio heads into this tournament with no USMNT caps but a ton of pedigree. The Sporting KC midfielder has an unmatched engine, is superb from set-pieces and a wonderful ball carrier. Moreover, especially since last season’s MLS Cup Playoffs, he’s grown as a goal threat, perfectly timing late runs into the box to fire home from close range as well as pulling out the odd banger. Busio, who also holds an Italian passport, has already ticked off one aim by making this squad. Now, with the likes of Barcelona and Fiorentina already linked in the past, his focus will be on attracting interest from Europe, something he wants to make a switch to ‘inevitable’.
“For them (clubs) to really want me, I have to continue playing well,” he told OneGoal in February. “I know that they’re watching my every move right now, so I really want to show them something to help them make the jump because that’s my goal, in the end, to eventually play in Europe.
“It may seem pretty close, but I want to make it inevitable. I just want to really show them something, and it gives me confidence to know that a lot of big clubs are watching.”
5. Jesus Corona (Mexico)
Given Berhalter has left the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie at home to rest, Mexico are the undoubted favourites to win this tournament for the fifth time in seven attempts. One of the reasons for that is the presence of Porto winger, Jesus Corona.
Tecatito, as he’s known in Mexico, is an industrious wideman who doesn’t shy away from his defensive chores. But make no mistake, he can be devastating in one-on-ones and is a crafty creator, laying on 27 assists across the last three Portuguese league seasons alone. Alan Pulido is most likely to lead the line for El Tri this summer and if the Sporting KC man is to add to his five goals in 16 caps, the service of Tecatito will be vital.
4. Daryl Dike (United States)
Club: Orlando City
In terms of raw talent and potential, they don’t come much more exciting at Gold Cup than Daryl Dike. After bursting on the scene for Orlando City in 2020, the 21-year-old was loaned out to Barnsley for the second half of the Championship season and his effect was remarkable. Dike scored nine goals in 23 league appearances (only 14 from the start), with Barnsley losing just three games during that time as the striker inspired them to an unlikely playoff berth.
The Tykes fell short in the end but enjoyed the ride while it lasted, while Dike’s stock rose considerably, with a number of Premier League clubs circling him since his return to Orlando. Dike is self-styled on Romelu Lukaku and it’s true that his intelligent running, ice-cold finishing and strength to hold off opponents and spin toward goal make the comparison an easy one. But Dike is his own player and, like Hoppe, he’ll be looking to make that No.9 spot his own this summer.
3. Leon Bailey (Jamaica)
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
There was a time, thanks to a glitch in the Football Manager game code, when many saw Leon Bailey as the next great English talent. He’s Jamaican, as it turns out, and although he has just eight caps to his name so far due to some personal disagreements, he heads to the Gold Cup this summer to give the Reggae Boyz a much-needed boost of star quality.
Bailey comes into this tournament off the back of an excellent season at club level with Bayer Leverkusen, during which he scored 15 goals and provided 10 assists in 40 appearances across all competitions, guiding the side to sixth place and Europa League football for next season.
How to defend against Bailey is obvious. Stop him cutting inside and don’t let him force you to backpedal. But actually doing it is another matter thanks to his ferocious pace and silky skills. His unpredictability makes Jamaica a real threat in the group stages.
2. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Hirving Lozano is finally looking like the player we all thought he’d be after the 2018 World Cup following an 11-goal and three-assist Serie A season for Napoli in 2020/21. What’s more, he punctuated that excellent club form with four goals across Europa League and Coppa Italia play, reaching the semi-final of the latter.
Lozano can frustrate his own fans thanks to his habit of holding onto the ball too long and running into dead ends. But if he gets a look at goal, there’s a good chance he’ll plant on in the top corner and when he’s on top form, he has the ability to drag this Mexico team to victory, even if others around him underperform.
Where Larin is an outside bet to top the scoring charts at Gold Cup, Lozano will be among the favourites.
1. Alphonso Davies (Canada)
Club: Bayern Munich
You could argue that no team is more dependent on one player than Canada are on Alphonso Davies, even with Larin around. So remarkable as his rise been, first with Vancouver Whitecaps before conquering all at Bayern Munich, it’s hard to believe he’s still only 20 years old.
While he plays left-back for Bayern, he’s now usually deployed further forward for the Canucks, with John Herdman offering him the freedom to drive the ball upfield and cause havoc in the opposition final third.
There are few defenders at this tournament capable of coping with Davies at his best, while few forwards will be able to get past him if Herdman does decide to shift him back at left-back, making room up-front for someone like Junior Hoilett or Ayo Akinola.
Either way, if Davies turns up, Canada really do stand a chance of going deep at Gold Cup. And they’ve only progressed further than the quarter-finals once since winning the trophy in 2000.
Honourable mentions: Efrain Alvarez, Edson Alvarez, Alan Pulido, Hector Herrera, Eloy Room, Reggie Cannon, George Bello, James Sands, Nicholas Gioacchini, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Lucas Cavallini, Junior Hoilett, Ayo Akinola, Celso Borges, Oscar Duarte, Bryan Ruiz, Andre Blake, Ryan Donk, Kelvin Leerdam