The US faces off against mighty Belize in their first match of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Gold Cup: This Time It Counts (like the one every four years two years ago used to).

The Gold Cup, held every two years, is really nothing more than a shameless cash grab by CONCACAF, the governing body of North and Central American soccer. The tournament should be held every four years, like the European Championships, with the winner gaining entry to the quadrennial Confederations Cup, a tune-up for the World Cup against some of the best teams in the world. Instead, under the old format, only the winner of the Gold Cup from two years before the Confederations Cup was allowed to compete. That rendered the Gold Cup held in the same year as the Confederations Cup effectively useless, with teams bringing B and even C teams to the event.

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Recently, however, CONCACAF decided that now the two winners of the Gold Cup held in a certain cycle – 2013 and 2015 for example – will play each other to represent the region at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. On the plus side, that makes this year’s tournament a slight bit more interesting than watching a sloth run a marathon.

The US and Mexico, as they do in all CONCACAF competitions, come in as heavy favorites. But Mexico is struggling. Big time. They’re currently sitting in 3rd place out of 6 teams, only 2 points up from 5th. They’ll probably recover in time to qualify for the World Cup comfortably, but not without some casualties first. Rumors are swirling that El Tri will fire their manager shortly, especially in the wake of the team’s opening game 2-1 Gold Cup loss to Panama on Sunday night.

That sets up the US as even more of a favorite to take home the trophy. Even without calling up most of their top players, including regulars Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore, the US is in prime position to make a deep run. And like that lday that Led Zeppelin knows who’s wasting her life building a stairway to heaven of all places, this great journey starts with a small step.

What: USA v. Belize

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon

When: Tonight at 11:00 ET, 8:00 PT

TV: Fox Soccer, Unimas, Univision Deportes, the Internet

Key Storylines:

1. Maintaining Momentum

The US is coming off an impressive 6-0 win over a young Guatemala side last Friday night. The US was largely unimpressive in the first half, holding only a 1-0 lead at halftime, but turned on the style in the second half with some key substitutions and a tiring Guatemalan defense. If the US can play like it did in the second half of that game, there aren’t going to be many teams that can stay with them in this whole tournament.

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Part of the second half’s success was due to the substitutions that coach Jurgen Klinsmann made at halftime. Instead of the struggling Jose Torres and Kyle Beckerman (see my feelings for him here and here), Klinsmann brought on the more dynamic Stuart Holden (more on him later) and Mix Diskerud, a 22-year-old central midfielder currently playing in Norway. All of a sudden, the US dominated the midfield, which made it a lot easier for forward Landon Donovan and finally-healthy winger Brek Shea to storm forward and create chance after chance.

Odds are that Klinsmann keeps one, if not both, of Torres and Beckerman in the starting lineup against Belize, just for consistency’s sake. But don’t be surprised at all to see Holden, Diskerud, and 25-year-old winger Alejandro Bedoya get serious looks throughout the tournament.

2. The Returns of Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden

Even his most critical detractors – those who prefer Landycakes to his given name – would be hard-pressed to convincingly argue that the US is better off without Landon Donovan. And yet for six months, Donovan didn’t suit up for the US, preferring instead to take a sabbatical. He returned to training with his club team in March, but didn’t do enough to earn a call-up for the team’s World Cup Qualifiers in either March or June.

This will be Donovan’s first opportunity to prove to Klinsmann that he not only belongs in the national team discussion after his “break”, but also that he ought to be one of the first names penciled in on the team sheet. He’s in a good position to impress; I’d argue that not only is Donovan the best player on this US team, he’s the best player in the entire tournament.

On the other end of the absence spectrum stands Stuart Holden, a central midfielder who earned a move from MLS straight to the Premier League with Bolton in 2010. Holden, a promising attacking talent for a team in desperate need of creativity, impressed in his first appearances for the US. However, just a few games into his Bolton career, Holden had his leg broken (note the passive voice) after a terrible challenge (not for the faint of heart) from noted piece of shit Nigel de Jong of the Netherlands.

In 2010-2011, Holden returned and was one of the stars of a surprising 7th-placed Bolton team that season, before Jonny Evans of Manchester United destroyed Holden’s knee like the asshole he is in March of 2011. This injury kept Holden out for a full six months, until he returned to play 90 minutes in a League Cup match. Immediately after, the team announced Holden had done further damage to his knee, which sent him to the trainer’s table for an additional 16 (!) months. Now he’s almost back to full fitness, though he hasn’t yet played 90 minutes for the US since his return. When healthy, he’s proven to be one of the US’ best options in central midfield.

3. Belize

Lets be honest here. Belize isn’t known for their soccer team. It’s known as a popular tax shelter and a great place for “eco-tourism.” Lionel Messi would love it there, am I right? Its highest ever world ranking in soccer is 128th. By finishing 4th in the Copa Centroamericana, a tournament I didn’t even know existed until now, they qualified for the Gold Cup. So good for them, I guess.

Only three of Belize’s players ply their trade outside of the club soccer juggernaut that is the Belizean league. Two play in Honduras, and the third for UC Riverside in the US. There’s not much talent, to put it lightly. Their coach, Ian Mork, is a Wichita, KS native who actually serves as a part-time scout for the US team. That’s what they’re working with against the odds-on favorite in the whole tournament.

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So Belize will do what any good underdog does: they’ll park the proverbial hybrid-fuel using eco-bus. If the US gets frustrated seeing 11 Belizeans behind the ball, then Belize might, just might, be able to snatch a goal on the counter and steal a win. But I’d say John McAfee has a better chance of getting the key to Belmopan before that happens.

Projected US Lineup:

Rimando

Parkhurst Goodson Onyewu Beasley ©

Torres Beckerman

Donovan Corona Shea

Gomez

Final Score: 4-0 USA

What are your predictions for the final score tonight? Happy with the projected lineup? Who are you most excited to see play for the Nats?

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Leave your comments here, and also hit me up during the game on Twitter at @amharris26. I welcome any and all comments, except pro-Beckerman crap. He sucks.