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A primer: U.S. prepares for 2011 Gold Cup

The pre-game team picture of the United States

The pre-game team picture of the United States before its international friendly match against Paraguay at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. (March 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

 We're back!

The Equalizer returns for another summer of soccer. The reason? The 2011 Gold Cup -- hosted by the United States from June 5 to 25 -- will be held in various stadiums across the country. For casual fans of the no-hands game, you may be asking yourself ... what's a Gold Cup? While the World Cup shines the brightest light on the world's game and the United States men's national team (USMNT) every four years, there are several tournaments in between that offer exciting play for fans and rewarding opportunities for teams and players. The Gold Cup is one of those.

We'll be in Foxborough, Mass., June 4 to watch the United States' last tune-up match before the tournament against none other than the best team in the world -- the 2010 World Cup champions from Spain. We'll offer previews of both teams leading up to the game and provide a detailed report of the game itself as head coach Bob Bradley readies his squad for the rigorous three weeks that follow.

But back to your original question. What's a Gold Cup? Here's a primer. Plus, in the next month, we'll take a look at the USMNT and what has transpired in the year since its run to the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup.

What's the deal: The Gold Cup is held every two years (for the most part), predominantly in the United States, and is the setting for the CONCACAF championship (The game's governing body for the Caribbean, North and Central America regions). The winner not only gets bragging rights as the upper western hemisphere's greatest team, but qualification for FIFA's 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil -- a major tune-up for the World Cup the following year that features some of the best teams in the planet.

If you recall, the United States, which won the 2007 Gold Cup, qualified for the 2009 Confederations Cup and really made the most of the opportunity. After barely escaping out of their group, they took on No. 1 Spain in the semifinals and scored a memorable 2-0 win -- one of the best wins in USMNT history. Though the boys blew a 2-0 lead over Brazil and lost in the final, the win over Spain gave the team loads of confidence as they returned to South Africa for the World Cup the following year.

Who's invited: There are 12 teams that have qualified for the 2011 Gold Cup and they are divided evenly into three groups.

Group A - Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Cuba
Group B - Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Grenada
Group C - USA, Canada, Guadeloupe, Panama

The United States' schedule: June 7 vs. Canada in Detroit; June 11 vs. Panama in Tampa; June 14 vs. Guadeloupe in Kansas City. All U.S. games will be televised and in primetime.

The top 8 teams qualify for the quarterfinals -- held in New Jersey and D.C. The semifinals will be held in Houston and the final will be played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on June 25.

History lesson: The CONCACAF has held a championship since the 1960s and it formerly served as a qualifier for the World Cup. In 1991, it took on a different format and adopted the Gold Cup moniker, and Mexico (5) and the United States have won nine of those 10 titles. Canada secured its only win in 2000. Amazingly, the United States has never lost a match in group play (23-0-2) and owns an overall record of 38-5-6.

What happened last time: After the United States' runner-up performance in the 2009 Confederations Cup, head coach Bob Bradley decided to give many of his veterans some rest. He invited a mostly younger set of players, seven of which garnered their first cap. The youngsters, however, made a great run with four wins and one draw before losing -- in shocking fashion -- 5-0 to Mexico in the final. It was the worst U.S. loss since 1985 and Mexico's first win over the Americans on U.S. soil since 1999. Four U.S. players earned a spot on the 18-player all-tournament team: defenders Clarence Goodson and Chad Marshall, midfielder Stuart Holden and forward Kenny Cooper.

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