[USA-MEXICO] After 24 games in 12 cities spread across 20 days, the two Concacaf powers are set for another showdown when the USA and Mexico play for the Gold Cup title Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Neither team has taken as a smooth a path as it would have liked to the 2011 Gold Cup final, and that among other factors gives this meeting of the USA and Mexico extra dashes of intrigue.
For the first time in 14 years, Mexico and the USA face off at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, site of the 1994 World Cup final but never utilized for a competitive match between the rivals. A sea of green-clad Mexican fans will make up most of the crowd that will witness a Gold Cup final that matches these countries for the third straight time (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Univision).
They have split the last two meetings; two years ago, the Mexicans overpowered a team of mostly second-tier Americans, 5-0, to reverse a 2-1 U.S. victory two years earlier. While this game finds U.S. coach Bob Bradley under perhaps the most intense scrutiny of his five-year tenure, his focus will be on opponent imbued with speed, skill, and a burning desire to beat the Americans as badly as possible.
In the 2007 Gold Cup final at Soldier Field, the Americans did a reasonably good job of containing Giovanni dos Santos and Nery Castillo, though their pace did get them in behind the U.S. back line on a few occasions. This Mexican Gold Cup team has dos Santos as well as Pablo Barrera, whose run and cross set up Javier Hernandez for the goal by which Mexico beat Guatemala, 2-1, in the quarterfinals.
To reach this final, the teams have taken different paths; the USA lost a group match for the first time before posting three straight shutouts, while Mexico has slowed somewhat following a powerful start. Hernandez is Mexico’s brightest new star – following his sensational debut season for Manchester United – yet the team’s luster has dimmed somewhat in the past week.
After blowing through its group games – El Salvador, Cuba, and Costa Rica – by combined scores of 14-1, Mexico has labored in the knockout phases. It fell behind Guatemala on a Carlos Ruiz goal in the fifth minute before rallying strongly to prevail, 2-1, and needed overtime to dispatch Honduras, 2-0, in the semis.
“People don’t see that, either,” said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, of how different knockout games can be from group play. “Mexico is pumping teams, 5-0, and that’s great, but now what are you going to do with a team that’s in your face?”
Against Honduras, after regulation ended goalless, Mexico scored twice on corner kicks early in overtime, which adds another layer of preparation for Coach Bradley and his players. Aldo De Nigris headed in Barrera’s corner in the third minute, and in the ninth minute De Nigris served up a ball for Hernandez to nudge home for his tournament-high seventh goal. DeNigris is second on the team with four.
The U.S. conceded its first goal in the group loss to Panama when a blocked free kick was served back into the goalmouth and Luis Tejada scrambled a rebound into the net. Panama scored its winning goal on a penalty kick. On the plus side of set plays, Goodson headed the U.S. goal in that same game on a Landon Donovan corner kick glanced into the goal area by Bradley.
In the rematch, the Americans – heavily criticized the past few years for a perceived reliance on the long ball – played the ball patiently for long periods, and while this approach didn’t dazzle, it did tire out Panama, which had to play overtime in its quarterfinal before eliminating El Salvador on penalties. The same scenario played itself out Wednesday in the heat and humidity of Houston, with Mexico going an extra 30 minutes against Honduras following the U.S. dispatch of Panama.
Keeping the ball against Mexico, which features a bulldog ball-winner in Gerardo Torrado, won’t be nearly so easy as it was against a oft-bunkered Panama. The ball will have to be played quicker, which is one of many reasons the Americans need Donovan’s zeal and energy in the starting lineup rather than off the bench. He has come on as a sub in the last two games, and set up Clint Dempsey for the winner against Panama with a seeing-eye centering pass from the right flank on a scintillating counterattack.
“When you come into these types of tournaments you grow along the way,” said Coach Bradley of the team’s path, during which it lost in the first round for the first time (2-1 to Panama).
“You certainly grow when you lose and you look hard at certain things. I think that’s been important. The first round is always about advancing and using the games to figure out where you are. I think we’ve gotten better from start to finish. There’s a good level of confidence, and it’s a strong group that has been through this before.”
All that experience will be crucial in the Rose Bowl, where the USA and Mexico last played in the winter of 1997 with the Mexicans winning, 2-0, on a rainy night with only 31,725 in attendance. The previous two meetings were full-fledged border battles; a 2-2 tie in 1996 (92,216), and a 1-0 U.S. win in its last match before the 1994 World Cup (91,123).
Tournament promoters announced during the semifinals Wednesday that the final had sold out. It will be a racuous, vivid setting worth of the occasion.