2024 Gold Cup prelims produce bangers, penalty saves & drama

El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic advanced into the W Gold Cup Group Stage. So, let's break down the action.

2024 Gold Cup prelims produce bangers, penalty saves & drama

Saturday's W Gold Cup prelims (almost) had it all.

The quick facts are that El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic advanced into the tournament proper which begins on Tuesday, 20th February. The latter two nations produced narrow 1-0 wins over Haiti and Guyana respectively; while La Selecta romped past Guatemala 3-1.

Here's how the fully complete 12-team 2024 Gold Cup looks now:

If we're being picky, the only thing missing from the prelim festivities in Carson, CA, was a comeback. Otherwise, it was a near-perfect capsulation of what makes footy great. Onwards.

Match snapshots

🇩🇴 Dominican Rep. 1-0 Guyana 🇬🇾

The final scoreline may have flattered Guyana but not goalkeeper Chante Sandiford, who had an outstanding performance betwixt the posts. The 34-year-old captain made seven saves on the day, with a couple of balletic reflexes in the second half standing out in particular.

In tears, of both sadness and pride, after the match, Sandiford spoke about how this Guyana team's overall mission goes way beyond this one defeat and tournament.

"What we're doing here is way bigger than winning matches. It's about building something for the girls in Guyana...we want to motivate them to want to play football and stay in football," she told Paramount+.

There was no blame going Sandiford's way for the only goal of the match. Kat Gonzalez really kicked the 2024 Gold Cup into gear with a sizzling and true missile from 24 yards out in the 55th minute. The angle from behind the goal is superb at capturing the verve of the ball and the midfielder's cheeky celebration (🤷🏽‍♀️), and blowing kisses to the fans in the aftermath. Big limbs.

When asked about her instant classic left-footed wonderstrike and what it meant ot make the group stage, Gonzalez grinned and said: "We're here to show up and show what we got." Fair play, Kat. You have.

With 19 total shots (eight on target), and a missed open goal from two yards by Mía Asenjo, frankly D.R. should've been home and dry long before the nervy ending.

D.R. head coach Henry Parra went full Ted Lasso in the post-match and called up on Dominicans to "believe" his team has what it takes to make it out of the group stage. There is something special about these history-makers. So why not get carried away.

🇭🇹 Haiti 0-1 Puerto Rico 🇵🇷
Another one-sided match, but this time with the more dominant side failing to get a breakthrough. Ultimately, it was a game of two spot kicks. One converted, and one saved.

All in all, Haiti were the most talented team in the prelims. Even without superstar Melchie Dumornay. They were the only team of the six nations to have been to a World Cup, and furthermore, the only one to have even made the final stages of recent World Cup qualifying. Heartbreak.

The expectation is Haiti would overcome Puerto Rico, and likely make it out of the Group Stage and perhaps even win a Quarterfinal match. The expectation was not to come up against Sydney Martinez, in the form of her life.

Early Puerto Rico errors at the back, and in midfield, went unpunished. Big chances dried up. Perhaps even, the weight of playing from behind appeared heavy on the players.

Haiti pelted the box with an extraordinary 21 shots, with 11 on target. But many were rushed and struggled to build up enough pressure to truly pull a rigid Puerto Rico out of shape.

In contrast, the Blue Hurricane whistled off just two shots at the Haiti goal. One pot-shot that went wide from 25 yards, and then, most importantly, Jill Aguillera's winning penalty just before halftime. Football be like that sometimes.

Puerto Rico (black) - Haiti (gold) shot map

The Puerto Rico goalkeeper channeled Sandiford's dazzle earlier on in the day and went one better by keeping a clean sheet and making 11 saves. None more impressive than the penalty save on Nerilia Mondesir. Martinez was firm in her footwork, and didn't bite on Mondesir's stutter-step. A herculean leap to her left with both palms delivered the moment of the match.

On the ball, Puerto Rico had first-half substitute Danielle Marcano to thank for a tricky dribble that won the penalty kick. A rare moment of ball carrying and penetration that helped their hard-working defence breathe.

As we saw in the Azteca at the end of 2023, Puerto Rico is happy to sit deep and adjust its formation between 4-4-2, 4-5-1, and 5-4-1 to maximize the amount of bodies it can get behind the ball.

"Ideally, we're trying to slow down their attack," P.R. head coach Nathaniel Gonzalez explained about his tactics afterward. "We started in two lines of four, and they were doing a really good job of, pressing our backline first 15 minutes. We were kind of on our heels, so we adjusted. Which gave us an extra number, which calmed them down and gave us more numbers when we won the ball. And there were moments after those 15 minutes, of trying to feel out the game of what they were going to do."

Can parking the bus cause more upsets this month?

🇸🇻 El Salvador 3-1 Guatemala 🇬🇹

The 'Intra-Continental Bangers™' resumed in the late game with El Salvador forward Brenda Ceren smashing the ball like it had wronged her to open the scoring. There was some jittery frenetic brilliance about the first-half goal.

Brenda Ceren | Courtesy of Concacaf

At 1-0 down, Guatemala's Savianna Gómez made an idiotic decision to try and slyly punch Juana Plata in the back as she went to challenge for the ball. After the ref initially gave a yellow card for the coming together, VAR decided to have a second look and the card was upgraded to red.

La Selecta had started the better team, with tempo, movement and plenty of bravery on the ball. 11 v 11 they looked the better side. 11 v 10, the contest became even more one sided.

Before the break, Ceren added another with a fabulous settle of the ball and tidy slip behind the keeper in a one-on-one. Then, she got her hat-trick in the second half from the penalty spot. It could've been four goals for the Atlas player, but she skied a second penalty kick way over the bar just before the final whistle.

Also in the dying moments, Gutemala's talisman, Ana Lucia Martinez, scored the final banger of the night sweetly curling the ball into the top corner from nearly 30 yards out. The Rayadas player has tremendous ability. Whilst her Gold Cup may have been fleeting, that goal will live long in the memory.

That's now seven consecutive wins for El Salvador dating back to September 2023. Eric Acuna's team have spent two years developing tight relationships. Their chemistry and cohesion was clear for all to see on Saturday night.

The coach was adamant, as he has been all along, that a spot in the Gold Cup Quarterfinals is his team's target. "El Salvador is ready for more," he said. "I don't think we should get too ambitious. We'd like to dream. But we always have to remain grounded. We can't dream too much...still, I am very happy for the girls. I think they deserve to be here."

After such enjoyable displays in the qualifiers, and now the prelims, many will be jumping on the El Salvador bandwagon. Quite simply, they are THE dark horse of this tournament.

Notes, odd and ends, memes

  • There's something special about the thrill of a goal from outside the box. The millisecond of wonder before the ball reaches its destination. Of the six goals scored over the three matches, two were exceptionally well-hit long-distance strikes. Another was a banger from just inside the box. The Concacaf region, and in particular LigaMX Femenil, is spoiled for having great strikers of the ball, and this Gold Cup looks set to be FUN when it comes to screamers being hit.
  • Guatemala head coach Karla Cortez was asked about her future with the federation, and whether she would resign, by a journalist after the match. She paused, kindly yet ominously, and then asked for the journalist to repeat her name and then thoughtfully reeled off the many reasons why her job to grow the national team goes way beyond this tournament and this result. It was a moment. Fair play for the theatre Karla.
  • Quick shoutout to Dominican Republic left back Nadia Colon. She was a big threat against Guyana and was very happy to tread up the pitch and make herself an overload in the attack. The UT Rio Grande Valley senior from Miami could be looking for her first professional contract in the wake of the Gold Cup.

Everyone was Nerillia Mondesir and Nerillia Mondesir was everyone in the wake of her dramatic penalty being saved.

Part comedy, part tragedy, the broadcasters cutting to the Haiti coach and zooming in after the penalty miss was something.


Courtesy of Paramount +

Pretty obsessed with this clip Saviana Gomez literally unfurling steam from her brow while she awaited her red card, having punched Juana Plata in the back. Some ill-advised aggression. But quite the Concacaf cinematic moment.

The atmosphere on the pitch and in the stands was special. Oof, it's good to have a proper international tourney underway. | Courtesy of Concacaf

Thanks for reading Squad Depth and for making it all the way to the end! Please share this story with anyone you think who might be interested and don't hesitate to reach out with requests or feedback regarding 2024 Gold Cup coverage.