Photo by David Leah/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
PASADENA, Calif.- The U.S. men's national team knows all too well the benefits that come from winning the first of two Gold Cups in a World Cup cycle. But if the Americans are to repeat their performance from four years ago when they lifted the Gold Cup trophy, they'll have to beat an undefeated Mexican team that is considered to be one of the most talented in its history.
The United States takes on its all-too-familiar rival on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel/Univision) in what is expected to be a sold out crowd at the Rose Bowl. For the Americans, the game not only stands as a chance to reclaim the Gold Cup title that it lost to El Tri in 2009, but also to receive a berth to the 2013 Confederations Cup.
"We take all of the experiences and bring them into play. We understand what it takes to win a final, we know the feeling of letting one go," said head coach Bob Bradley. "But we also focus primarily on this group and where we are, and what's happened in the last month and what it's going to take to play well and win."
Having endured a topsy-turvy start to the tournament, the United States comes into the championship game peaking at the right moment. The Americans, who have not conceded a goal in 324 minutes, have won all of their last three games, and while the goals haven't been coming in bunches, the ability to dictate the tempo of games and create chances has been much improved.
Juan Agudelo has been effective in the lone forward role in the 4-2-3-1 formation Bradley has deployed in the knockout rounds of the tournament. The 18-year-old will need to be a handful against New York Red Bulls teammate Rafael Marquez and his centerback partner, Hector Moreno, in his first meeting against Mexico in order to open up space for the midfielders behind him.
That's where one question lies for Bradley. Landon Donovan was relegated to coming off the bench for the U.S. team in the quarterfinals and semifinals, but has a proven track record of coming up big against Mexico. That leaves Bradley with a big decision on his hand.
"Many factors," said Bradley of what goes into deciding whether or not Donovan starts. "The way we play. What we think this game will be like. What you need at the beginning of the game. What you might need as the game goes on. There's so many different factors. These are all things that the staff discusses and then often times we discuss it with different players so these are part of some of the discussions leading into decisions the last two games and we'll do it the same way."
Two players who are all but assured to start are central midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. The American duo has started every match since the tournament began, and will be needed to limit a Mexico team with plenty of attacking quality in the midfield.
From the likes of Gerardo Torrado to Andres Guardado, Mexico enters the game still having some of the familiar faces that U.S. fans saw play at Soldier Field four years ago. There are some new Mexican players, however, that have slightly changed the dynamic of Mexico's anatomy.
"They have some good young talent to go with the experienced guys that we've all gotten to know well over the years," said Bradley. "I think their style of play is similar, but at the same time, things change as new players come into teams. That's true with us and true with them."
Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is one of the players that is still fairly new to the Mexican national team, but he'll likely still prove to be a handful for Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson and the rest of the U.S. defense. The 23-year-old striker, who has never played the United States before, is coming off a dream first season with Manchester United, one in which he demonstrated good movement, well-timed runs and impeccable and deadly finishing.
Bocanegra and Goodson won't have to be the only ones though stop him, though. Instead, it will take a collective defensive effort from the U.S. team.
"The key for us in the game is stop Chicharito," said Donovan. "What he does on the field is different than the rest of the players. In every moment, he can do something special. If we're not focused, he can score one, two, three goals."
The Americans can't let that happen, not when they want to reach a second consecutive Confederations Cup in order to gain the invaluable experience of playing in the eventual World Cup country and its stadiums.
"The main objective is winning the game and getting to the Confederations Cup," said Clint Dempsey, who has scored a team-high three times. "That's the goal."
Dempsey also acknowledges that reaching the tournament in 2013 with a win on Saturday will allow the United States to continue to build on what they accomplished last cycle, something that needs to be done in order to show that the team is improving.
"That's what our goal is: To be better than we were last cycle, try to be moving forward as a country in soccer," said Dempsey. "A win tomorrow will be a step in the right direction."