DETROIT – With the next World Cup still three years away, the United States is already playing games that will affect the national team well into the future.
The Americans open Gold Cup play on Tuesday night against Canada, and the champion of this regional tournament will earn an automatic berth to the 2013 Confederations Cup, an important World Cup tuneup.
"The main goal this year has been looking forward to this Gold Cup, and making sure we win," midfielder Clint Dempsey said. "We want to be in the Confederations Cup."
The U.S. is trying to build more momentum after that impressive showing in the Confederations Cup and Landon Donovan's dramatic goal at last year's World Cup that put the Americans in the round of 16. It's not always easy to gauge where the national team stands in non-World Cup years, but this tournament, played every two years for the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean, should provide a decent test.
The U.S. and rival Mexicans are the favorites, having met in the past two Gold Cup finals. The Americans won in 2007, earning their berth in the 2009 Confederations Cup. There was less at stake in the 2009 Gold Cup, and the U.S. fielded an inexperienced team that was routed 5-0 by Mexico for the title.
"I think this tournament is getting more and more difficult," Donovan said. "You could say there's three or four other teams that have a legitimate chance."
That said, the Americans have never lost a group stage game at the Gold Cup. They need only finish in the top two among Canada, Panama and Guadeloupe to ensure a quarterfinal spot.
A berth in the Confederations Cup is important not only because the competition is strong, but because it's played at the same site as the World Cup — essentially a dress rehearsal. Donovan feels the Americans owed some of their success at the last World Cup in South Africa to the fact that they'd played there the year before.
They'd love a similar experience before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"Winning the Gold Cup put us in the Confederations Cup, which we all feel was a really big help, not only from a confidence standpoint, in beating the teams we beat in the Confederations Cup, but also just being in South Africa and seeing the way it works," Donovan said. "Getting used to the climate, the travel, that kind of stuff, helped us a lot."
The U.S. is coming off an inauspicious 4-0 loss to World Cup champion Spain in an exhibition game Saturday in Foxborough, Mass. Neither team fielded its best lineup for that one. Donovan didn't play, and Dempsey came on only as a second-half substitute for coach Bob Bradley.
"That was a game more for the fans," Dempsey said. "We play whoever they put in front of us for friendlies, but as far as what matters to us, the main focus for the whole year has been the Gold Cup."
If the Americans win this tournament, they might end up with a rematch with Spain under more competitive circumstances two years from now.
"In the last cycle, the opportunity to play against some great teams, the lessons that come from those games, helped us as we moved along," Bradley said. "We've never shied away from those kinds of games."