In anticipation of Saturday’s Gold Cup final showdown between the United States and Mexico, we asked our colleagues at ESPNDeportesLosAngeles to join Scott French in breaking down the keys to the big match.
1. Who is the X factor for the U.S.?
Scott French: Landon Donovan, the finest talent the U.S. has produced, has been key off the bench the past two games, and whether Bob Bradley chooses to utilize him similarly in the final or, as most U.S. fans desire, return him to the starting 11, he's the Yanks' protagonist.
He brings precision in crucial moments (as we witnessed with his pinpoint pass for Clint Dempsey's goal in the semifinal victory over Panama -- or with that goal to beat Algeria in South Africa during the World Cup), a knack for scoring and creating (he's the U.S.'s all-time leader in goals and assists), and the ability to carry his team to victory when required.
If he's on, the Americans are tough to beat. If not, they're at a disadvantage.
2. What is the biggest concern for the U.S. coming into this match?
French: The U.S. can't afford another poor start. The big negative in Bradley's tenure is how often his teams fall behind at the start of important matches.
The Americans too often look lethargic until they've been knocked down, not the way to start in a sport in which it is difficult to overcome a deficit. It happened three times at the World Cup -- England going ahead in the fourth minute, Slovenia in the 13th and Ghana in the fifth -- and Algeria hit the crossbar. In this tournament, Panama was ahead in the 19th, and Guadeloupe and Jamaica would have taken leads at the start with more clinical finishing.
The U.S. believes it can overcome a disadvantage, but conceding early against a team of Mexico's quality would be disastrous.
3. What advantage must the U.S. exploit to win the match?
French: Mexico, unquestionably, has the finest talent and depth in the region, but in two regards it cannot match the U.S.: 1) Belief. 2) The man in the nets.
The Americans believe they will beat their archrivals, and, more often than not, they will outwork them. That's what's behind a 10-4-2 record against Mexico since the start of 2000. Break it down, it's more remarkable: Three of Mexico's victories were in World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City. The other was in the 2009 Gold Cup final, when the U.S. fielded what amounted to a C team and was drilled, 5-0. Throw that one out, and the Yanks have outscored El Tri, 21-3, in 12 meetings somewhere other than Azteca.
On the field, there's a marked distinction between Tim Howard -- at his best, among the world's elite goalkeepers -- and Mexico's Alfredo Talavera, starting only because Jose de Jesus Corona head-butted a rival (in front of a TV camera, no less) and Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa failed a doping test. Howard can be a game changer if Donovan, Dempsey & Co. can beat Talavera just once.
1. Who is the X factor for Mexico?
Sebastian Martinez Christensen: Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. The answer may be obvious, but it is impossible to ignore the top scorer in the Gold Cup so far. Mexico has always had good ballhandling, but very few times with the authority they have now. Hernández brings the constant pressure with his speed and diagonals, and if he finds the net again, “El Tri” will play with the necessary confidence to win the game. As if that wasn’t enough, Chicharito is not only a great forward but also a great leader in the dressing room at his young age.
Rafael Ramos: Speed. Combinations in short relays, and game changes. Andres Guardado and Giovanni dos Santos will be the key men. Pablo Barrera could be the third man in the imbalance factor. In the five games played so far, it has been a key factor when rivals have nullified Chicharito.
2. What is the biggest concern for Mexico coming into this match?
Martinez Christensen: The main concern is its lack of consistency. It show moments of high flying soccer, but at times they looks lost in the field. Up to now, it has been more than enough, but Mexico can’t just hand out minutes in a final. A lot of people ask what is Mexico missing to go to the next level. The answer is playing for 90 minutes. Coach Chepo de la Torre has done a good job when it’s time to handle the group, so far, but must confirm it in the most important scenario. Until it shows consistency, Mexico will be their own worst enemy.
Ramos: Team USA’s character; the different personality it shows against Mexico compared to other rivals. Steve Sampson defined it very well one time: “When playing Mexico, I never have anything to explain or to motivate the players. They know very well what they have to do and how they have to do it.”
3. What advantage must Mexico exploit in win the match?
Martinez Christensen: Team USA’s desperation. Bob Bradley’s players have some internal problems and his continuity at the helm has been questioned due to the poor level at which they have been playing in this Gold Cup. They reached the final, but the United States, which had shown constant progress during the last decade, has fallen into a hole and their confidence is not at its highest point. Mexico must be aggressive from the start, because when your rival is hurt, you must strike. If they don’t, the price may be too high because Team USA has not forgotten how to play the game overnight. CONCACAF’s giant is asleep, not dead. Mexico must take advantage of that to take away, once more, the title of “best in the zone.”
Ramos: It’s the fastest, most precise team in the Gold Cup. The rhythm of its European players makes a difference when it’s compared to the group. Mexico loses against the USA because it obsesses on winning. It gets desperate and become impatient. The stadium may be pro Mexico on Saturday, but that will not impress Team USA, which is used to being the visitor in its own country against El Tri.