Gold Cup Final: Soccer Mania Comes To Chicago

At long last, the soccer gods have smiled on the city by the lake.

Chicago’s Soldier Field will be the site of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final on July 28. And guess who has two thumbs and two tickets to the match?

I wasn’t brought up on soccer as a child. My Honduran-born mother was raised in Puerto Rican Humbolt Park, where basketball and baseball are the neighborhood pastimes. I first learned about Pelé around the same time I began hearing about Beckham — sometime in the late ’90s.

Even then, soccer didn’t excite me as much as basketball or baseball. A game ending in a tie seemed downright disgusting to me.

But I guess my love of the sport grew as the nation’s love grew, too. By the time the 2009 Champions League Final rolled around, I was cheering on Samuel Eto’o and Barça as they faced off against the defending champs, Manchester United. (Barça won 2-nil, with the deadly duo of Eto’o and a young Messi scoring one goal a piece.)

Now, soccer is a constant in my life. I’m not as fanatic as some of my friends, but I have a handful of countries and clubs I follow somewhat regularly.

What fascinates me about the sport, specifically international play, is that it’s damn-near close to actual war, except on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. National teams facing each other on a soccer field or competing in an international tournament is the closest mankind comes to a good war.

Yet instead of armies of men killing each other and sinking to the very depths of moral depravity, soccer sees teams of men running, jumping and soaring to the very heights of athletic ability. And unlike the Olympic Games, in which China might dominate in gymnastics but the United States wins the most golds in swimming, international play in soccer, at its most basic, involves two countries meeting on one soccer field for a few hours to decide which country’s team is the best.

International tournaments carry this spirit of beautiful warfare — including the Copa de Oro.

Mexico and the United States have faced off in the last three finals held since 2007, and Mexico hopes to three-peat for the second time since 1998. The United States and Mexico hold 10 titles between them in the Cup’s 22-year history, and besides the two teams, Canada is the only other country to win a Gold Cup Final, having won in 2000. In the last final, in 2011, Mexico beat Team USA 4-2, and Mexico demolished the U.S. side 5-nil two years before that.

But things may be different for Mexico this time around, as they don’t seem to have the same level of talent on their team as they once had and Team USA has become arguably the most dominate side in CONCACAF.

True, both teams are sitting their usual starters and fielding subs, which is nothing new in the Gold Cup. But Team USA’s B-squad includes none other than the returning Landon Don0van, America’s all-time leading scorer. The L.A. Galaxy star already surpassed his 50th goal and 50th assist in Team USA’s Gold Cup opener against Belize on July 9, Donovan’s first appearance wearing the red, white and blue in over a year.

Las Barras y Estrellas won Group C with a victory over Costa Rica last night, while El Tri lost Group A and looked small in their unimpressive 3-1 victory against Martinique on Sunday. Nonetheless, the tournament is unabashedly designed to get both Mexico and the United States to the final dance.

Quarterfinals matches of the knockout round will be held this weekend, and the semifinal matches will be played next Wednesday, deciding who will go toe to toe at Soldier Field on the 28th.

Mexico will have to beat Trinidad & Tobago this Saturday and either Panama or Cuba next Wednesday (which they likely will) to win a trip to the final. The United States must beat El Salvador on Sunday and either Honduras or Costa Rica on Wednesday to take the field in Chicago.

Of the three group winners (Panama, Honduras and the United States), the Catrachos have the toughest match up this weekend, playing their perennial archrival Costa Rica.

If history and tradition are worth anything, it’ll be Mexico and the United States tussling for the Copa de Oro on July 28 at Soldier Field. Being of Honduran descent, however, I’d love to see a Honduras-Mexico final match-up. Depending on how La Bicolor does against Los Ticos on Sunday, I may be stripped of all my delusions come Monday.

I’ll keep my Honduras jersey clean no matter what, but from the look of things so far, I might want to start searching for something with “Team USA” or “Mexico” on it.

[Photo: Señor Codo via Flickr]

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