And then there were two.
After weeks of matches — bicycle kicks, headers and faking injury — at last we have our two teams for the 2013 Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field this Sunday: Panamá versus Team USA.
When the tournament began in early July, most fútbol fans were expecting a repeat of the last four Gold Cups, ending in a now almost traditional U.S.-Mexico final. Many might’ve hoped to see Mexico three-peat for the second time in the Cup’s 22-year history, having beat Las Barras y Estrellas in 2009 and 2011.
Yet while the Americans got off to a good start, beating Belize 6-1, Mexico lost its first match of the 2013 Copa de Oro — against Panama, no less, the same team that denied El Tri a trip to Chicago in Wednesday night’s semifinal. The United States hasn’t dropped a match in the Cup, while Mexico’s loss on Wednesday was its second and final. Team USA has scored 19 goals in the tournament so far, while Panama is the only other team to break into double digits (with 11). The difference between the number of goals scored for and against the United States stands at +15 — again, the only other team in double digits.
All this is to say that I don’t see anyone beating Team USA this year, even if Mexico had gotten past Panama. And for being defending champs, Mexico sure didn’t play like it. In fact, Los Canaleros showed themselves to be the better team throughout the tournament, outscoring El Tri and finishing with a better record: three wins, no loses and one draw.
While it may not be the USA-Mexico epic battle that plenty of people were anticipating, Team USA and Panama clearly fielded the best two squads in this year’s Gold Cup.
One unexpected factor for the United States’ competition has been the return of America’s legendary footballer, Landon Donovan. Teams usually field their B-squads for the Gold Cup, having their star players rest up for the next round of World Cup qualifiers in late summer. Donovan’s nearly yearlong absence from the U.S. national team was followed by coach Jürgen Klinsmann denying him a spot on the World Cup qualifying team. Since the qualifying team seems to be doing pretty well without its star player, playing in the Gold Cup is a sort of penance for “Captain America,” Team USA’s all-time leading scorer, who also leads in assists.
Since making his return to the national team, Donovan has played like… well… Donovan, becoming the first U.S. player to pass the 50 mark in goals and assists. He’s scored five goals in this year’s Gold Cup so far, tied with teammate Chris Wondolowski and Panama’s young phenom, Gabriel Torres.
Panama’s a good team — the second best team in the tournament, in fact. But they’re nothing like the Americans.
If Team USA plays at Soldier Field like they’ve been playing throughout the Cup — controlling, attacking, defending — there’s no way they won’t be hoisting the trophy when the referee blows the final whistle.
Now all I have to do is hunt down a Team USA jersey for Sunday’s match. See you at the tailgate party!
[Photo: jasonwhat via Flickr]