... And then there were four. The CONCACAF Gold Cup hits the business end this week with a mouth-watering pair of semifinals -- Qatar vs. the United States and Mexico vs. Canada -- on Thursday night before Sunday's final in Las Vegas.
It's been a tournament of ebb and flow for the final four sides, all of whom answered some lingering questions in wrapping up their quarterfinal wins over the weekend. Who looks strong heading into the semis? What have we learned about these sides? ESPN's writers get you ready for the semifinals by taking you through how each team punched their ticket.
CANADA: Next generation ready for bigger and better
Canada has made significant progress as a soccer nation in recent years, and their 2-0 win over Costa Rica on Sunday night may just have signaled a changing of the guard in terms of the CONCACAF hierarchy.
Despite being without injured European-based stars Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin, as well as promising young Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola -- he suffered a torn right ACL in last Sunday's defeat to the U.S. -- Canada comprehensively defeated World Cup regulars Costa Rica, and staked their claim to being CONCACAF's third-best team.
English Football League veteran Junior Hoilett and Portugal-based midfielder Stephen Eustaquio got the goals, while defensively, Canada held Costa Rica -- the 50th-ranked nation in the world, according to FIFA, and a side that has qualified for two straight World Cups as well as four of the last five -- without a single shot on goal. The biggest takeaway will be that they did this without the likes of Davies and David, a sign that they are finally a nation that is ready to regularly compete in regional competitions and qualify for World Cups.
While Canada has always been a nation capable of producing the odd great player, a "Golden Generation" is starting to emerge, with Davies (20) and David (21) headlining a group of talented young players 24-and-under that also includes Gold Cup standouts Akinola, Eustaquio, Tajon Buchanan and Theo Corbeanu. Add in veterans like Hoilett, Larin, Lucas Cavallini, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Steven Vitoria, and there is no reason Canada shouldn't qualify for Qatar 2022.
Up first, though, they have a Gold Cup semifinal vs. mighty Mexico on Thursday night. John Herdman's side has already fulfilled expectations by reaching the semis, but a statement win over Mexico would go a long way in helping Canada announce itself as a soccer nation. Canada knocked off the United States in 2019 for the first time in 34 years, and a win over Mexico on Thursday -- a team it has only beaten three times in its history, and hasn't defeated since 2000 -- would be the next step in Canada's upward trajectory as an emerging CONCACAF power. -- Gus Elvin
MEXICO: Martino's side finding form at the right time
Facing a Honduras side diminished by injury and illness, Mexico found the perfect opponent to regain its confidence after a shaky group stage. El Tri was relentless in attack during the first half, finding three goals in 12 minutes and having two others disallowed from offside calls.
- Report: Mexico overwhelm Honduras in Gold Cup QF
Mexico nearly matched its offensive output for the entire group stage during its rout of Honduras on Saturday, with manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino using his 4-3-3 formation to drive through the wings for most of the match. The Argentine tactician allowed his lateral defenders to push up the field and create mismatches against a beleaguered Honduran back line, creating constant opportunities for El Tri's attackers. The strategy worked to perfection, considering all three goals came directly or indirectly after a cross from the wide area.
Facing plenty of criticism from Mexican media and fans prior to the quarterfinal, striker Rogelio Funes Mori turned in a solid performance up front, scoring the game's opening goal and consistently threatening Honduran goalkeeper Luis Lopez. Funes Mori and winger Orbelin Pineda formed a highly effective partnership in attack (Pineda scored his second goal of the tournament off a header), aided in part by solid performances from Luis Rodriguez, Jesus Corona and Jonathan dos Santos. Honduras, unable to field several regular players due to COVID-19 (or the injured Alberth Elis), looked overmatched for the vast majority of proceedings.
After the aforementioned rocky group stage, Mexico now rolls into the semifinals against Canada with a renewed sense of expectation in its quest to repeat as Gold Cup champion. At this point, it seems difficult to imagine any potential foe moving forward will be able to withstand Mexico's renewed wide attack. -- Eric Gomez
QATAR: Not here to make up the numbers
It probably should have happened earlier considering Qatar arrived at the Gold Cup as the defending Asian Cup champions, but while building a 3-0 lead against El Salvador on Saturday, something clicked in the minds of the viewing public: This team can play. As in, if the Qataris go on to win the Gold Cup, it shouldn't be come as a shock. It would still take some good fortune, of course, but given its strong commitment to attacking soccer through four games, Qatar has been arguably the most entertaining team in the tournament.
As the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar needed this kind of test. This is not a team that has any expectations of making a deep run on home soil next year; turning in a respectable, competitive showing is a fair way to measure success. And what has stood out in the Gold Cup is that Qatar has a pretty good formula to make up for the lack of high-end talent: continuity.
Part of the challenge of international soccer is the lack of reps the players get together, but Qatar started six players from domestic power Al Sadd in the quarterfinals, and everyone on the tournament roster plays club soccer in the Qatar Stars League. There is a familiarity there, and it's shown in their ability to create consistent chances for the last couple weeks. In Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, Qatar has a pair of talented forwards -- both spent time playing professionally in Europe before returning to Qatar -- that are the strength of this team.
Defensively, the results have been less consistent. El Salvador nearly erased the three-goal deficit on Saturday night, while Panama put three past goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham in the opener. Expect a wide-open game against the U.S. in the semifinal. -- Kyle Bonagura
UNITED STATES: Finally coming together
The victory by the U.S. men's national team against Jamaica in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, highlighted the team's growth in this tournament. Some players have experienced a steady climb, like center backs Miles Robinson and James Sands. Matthew Hoppe went into overdrive to bag the game's only goal.
For others, the growth has been uneven, but on Sunday some of the performances were of the bounce-back variety. That was especially evident in the U.S. midfield, and it was aided by a tactical tweak from manager Gregg Berhalter. Against Canada, Gianluca Busio was deployed (mostly) as a No. 6 in support of Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget, although his remit included license to get forward on occasion. But the trio faded as the game went on, with Busio in particular struggling to make an impact.
So Berhalter modified some roles, with Acosta moving back into a more traditional No. 6 and Busio being deployed further upfield. It worked a treat, as just about everything was better, be it possession (65.8% to 34.2%) or duels (55.6% to 44.4%). It also played to the respective players' strengths, with Acosta adding a bit more bite and Busio being freed to contribute more to the attack. Lletget is as crafty and patient on the ball as ever. As the game entered the latter stages, the U.S. got stronger, and the contributions of substitutes Cristian Roldan and Gyasi Zardes were significant as well.
The cohesion and structure shown by those three players bodes well for the upcoming semifinal against Qatar. The Maroon have looked breathtaking in transition, and while Jamaica did threaten from some of those opportunities, the U.S. midfield did plenty to disrupt those kinds of attacks. Acosta's range in particular is a valuable asset.
Thursday's semi against the reigning Asian champions will be difficult, but the U.S. team seems to be coming together at the right time. Another growth spurt could get them to the final. -- Jeff Carlisle