This evening, at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., the Gold Cup kicks off. The United States is evolving, rapidly, as a soccer nation, helped along by a certain teenager who's primed to take the country by storm this time next year. But still, the casual observer can perhaps be a bit overwhelmed by all the Cups; this is the third Cup of the past two weeks. (The U.S. Cup is ongoing and the Confederations Cup, which was in Russia, is now over.) The Gold Cup is important, but only a little important. With kickoff for the one tournament the United States is certain to host every two years just a few hours away, let's rev up a Gold Cup FAQ For The Casual But Curious Viewer.

So, what is the Gold Cup?

Wow, you're just diving right into the big questions. OK. The Gold Cup is a tournament held in the U.S. (though Canada helped out in 2015) every two years involving CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) nations. It takes place over three weeks in different locations across the United States. There are 12 teams, including the United States and defending champion, Mexico. There are also cute tiny little nations, like French Guyana, Martinique and Curacao.

Can I go to these games?

If you live within driving distances of these cities:

  • Arlington, Texas
  • Cleveland
  • Denver
  • Frisco, Texas
  • Glendale, Ariz.
  • Harrison, N.J.
  • Houston
  • Nashville
  • Pasadena, California
  • Philadelphia
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • Santa Clara, Calif.
  • Tampa

Then you can go. There are tickets available for all these games. International soccer matches are a blast, even if your home nation isn't playing. Sometimes it's even a little less dangerous.

How does the tournament work?

It's a pretty forgiving format. There are three groups of four teams. The top two teams in each group advance, as well as the top two third-place teams. This is a 12-team tournament in which eight teams advance to the quarterfinals. You almost have to actively try to miss the quarterfinals.

And what do you get if you win?

Well, there's a trophy. It looks like something Ming the Merciless would fight Flash Gordon for.

But it's not just about the trophy, of course. The winner of the 2017 Gold Cup will play the winner of the 2019 Gold Cup for the right to play in the 2021 Confederations Cup. The Confederations Cup is that tournament they just had in Russia, the one Germany just won over Chile.

Is that such a big deal, the Confederations Cup?

Well, it's the proverbial "dress rehearsal" for the World Cup, giving your team a chance to play against some of the best competition a year before the biggest sporting event on the planet. Mexico was CONCACAF's representative this year and finished fourth after a wipeout 4-1 loss to Germany in the semis.

Oh, so the United States didn't win the last Gold Cup?

They did not, and they did not win in spectacular fashion. The USMNT won the Gold Cup in 2013, which guaranteed them a spot the play-in game for the Confederations Cup, but they could have forgone all that simply by winning the 2015 Gold Cup. But not only did they not win the Gold Cup, they actually finished fourth, which is difficult to do. The nightmare was a semifinal loss to Jamaica at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta along with a loss to Mexico in the go-to-Russia game, and in retrospect, it was essentially the beginning of the end for Jurgen Klinsmann as the team's coach. Those losses showed the growing discord between the team and its coach, and it finally came to a head with two brutal World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica back in November, leading directly to Klinsmann's firing.

But they're back on track now, yes?

Yeah, the 2-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago and the 1-1 draw with Mexico at Azteca Stadium have the United States back on the path to qualify for the World Cup. That makes this tournament both more and less important. It's less important because the USMNT and head coach Bruce Arena have much bigger fish to fry, particularly on Sept. 1, when they have the next World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Stadium in Harrison, N.J. (the first time they've ever had a World Cup qualifier in the New York/New Jersey area). But it's more important because Arena and company want to build off that momentum and slingshot into the qualifiers feeling like world beaters. Plus, seriously, the Confederations Cup in four years would be fun. (Uh, assuming there is one.)

So we'll see Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley and Tim Howard and all the stars, right?

Um … no, actually. The Gold Cup is more of an experimental roster for Arena, particularly in the group stage, which the USMNT could probably breeze through even if they just grabbed that club team from Baltimore that everyone was so excited about. (The group includes Panama, Nicaragua and Martinique.) It's a way to see some of the young exciting talent coming up through the American system and to give them valuable experience on the international stage. This will be a terrific place to learn names like Kellyn Acosta, Christian Roldan, Dom Dwyer and Eric Lichaj. This could also be a place for Dax McCarty, currently tearing up the MLS for the Chicago Fire, to show that he could have a place on this team at the World Cup next year.

And you might end up seeing Pulisic and Bradley and company anyway. After the group stage, you can sub in six players from a 40-man roster, and Pulisic and Bradley (and Clint Dempsey and Jozy Alitdore) are on that. It just depends how badly Arena wants to win this tournament.

So the USMNT probably isn't favored to win this.

They aren't, but it's close. Mexico, the defending champs, are the favorites, though they're sort of playing their B-team too, if just because they just got back from the Confederations Cup. Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras should be competitive as well, and Jamaica shocked everyone by reaching the finals in 2015. But of the 13 Gold Cups, Mexico has won seven and the United States has won five. (Canada won in 2000.) They're clearly the best two teams.

So basically, this tournament exists only to have a chance to play in a tournament four years from now that isn't that important and that some FIFA organizers are worried might not even happen. And we're not playing our best players. I am not sure you have done the best job of convincing me to watch this thing.

Oh, come on! It's fun! Next summer, the World Cup is going to take over your entire life. Soccer is going to be on all day, and you're going to love it. Cheering for the USMNT is good, clean hipster patriotism, and it's one of the few things left in this crazy, terrifying country that connects everybody, regardless of demographics or geography or political affiliation. You can go to a bar, wear an America shirt, drink like crazy and high-five everybody you see when the United States scores a goal. The USMNT's first game is Saturday, at 4:30 p.m., against Panama. It'll be on Fox, which means it will be on every sports bar in this country. This is our dress rehearsal, to make sure that we are ready for the World Cup next year. The Gold Cup is a silly, small, not all that important or challenging soccer tournament, but it's our silly, small, not all that important or challenging soccer tournament. USA! USA! USA! Hop on board. It'll feel good to feel good about something again.


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