PREVIEW: Gold Cup Final descends on Chicago's Soldier Field Sunday afternoon
USA vs Panama
July 28, 2013, 4 pm ET
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Watch on FOX/Univision | Live Chat on MLSsoccer.com
The top trophy in North American soccer will be won in the Windy City on Sunday afternoon when the US national team meet surprise contenders Panama in the Gold Cup final at Soldier Field.
Mexico's woeful underperformance this month prevented the border rivalry showcase that everyone expects from this tournament and opened the door for La Marea Roja. But coach Julio Dely Valdés and his men did more than enough to prove that they belong, defeating El Tri twice, handling Martinique and routing Cuba.
Meanwhile, the USMNT has been dominant, rolling up five straight wins (part of a larger 10-game winning streak which has set a program record) with 19 goals scored and four conceded. Both teams are undefeated to this point.
These two teams have met predominantly in Gold Cup and CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, with the US enjoying a 9-1-2 overall record against their Central American counterparts. They've battled in the knockout rounds of the past five Gold Cups, with the Yanks coming out on top every time. But Panama did inflict its one triumph over the USMNT in the last edition of the tournament, a 2-1 group-stage win in Tampa, Fla., which remains the USA's only group-stage loss in Gold Cup history and one of the more humbling setbacks of Bob Bradley's tenure.
Most of the problems facing coach Jurgen Klinsmann at this stage are enviable ones. Should he continue the careful squad rotation which has kept competition keen and legs fresh all month, or is it time to keep faith in the starting 11 that defeated Honduras 3-1 in the Yanks' most competitive game of the tournament so far?
Is it time to plug the commanding Omar Gonzalez in at center back alongside Matt Besler, or has Clarence Goodson earned the right to continue? Will Mix Diskerud offer the vision and passing range needed to pick apart Panama's sturdy 4-4-2, or is the energetic Stuart Holden the better option? Will Eddie Johnson again be preferred to Chris Wondolowski, or will Wondo's poaching abilities win out?
A few choices are easy for the rampaging Red, White and Blue, however. Kyle Beckerman has proved himself essential at the base of midfield, veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando will anchor the defense and Landon Donovan is the man with the plan up top.
They've reached the Hexagonal stage of World Cup qualifying and are still in the mix for a place in Brazil 2014 (which would be their first-ever World Cup berth). They just defeated the region's traditional 800-pound gorilla twice in a three-week period. And now they are 90 minutes away from their first-ever Gold Cup championship.
Life is good for Panamanian soccer at present, and no matter what happens in Chicago on Sunday, the summer has been both thrilling and instructive for Dely Valdés (whose twin brother Jorge, a former Colorado Rapids standout, is on his technical staff) as Los Canaleros seek to consolidate their gains going forward.
But their chances of a shock result against the US are not as long as they might look on paper. Led by reported Seattle Sounders transfer target Roberto Chen, the back four have been organized and brave – the Yanks will not break them down simply by hoofing crosses into the penalty box, that much is certain. FC Dallas striker Blas Pérez has built a threatening partnership with Rapids target Gabriel Torres, the tournament's co-leading scorer alongside Donovan and Wondolowski.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Landon Donovan
No prizes for originality here. The man whose name is on everyone's lips this month will look to underline his return to international stardom by dominating the final in the same fashion as he has the entire tournament. Donovan has been dangerous both as a finisher and as a creator for others, and Panama will have to engineer some kind of tactic to moderate his influence if they are to compete on Sunday.
PANAMA – Jaime Penedo
Plenty of eyes will be on Pérez and Torres up top, but if the Canaleros' upset hopes are to become reality, it's going to take some sterling work at the back against a very dynamic USMNT attack. There are four willing workers in Penedo's backline but when it comes right down to it, the veteran goalkeeper must produce a classic performance between the posts to stymie the Yanks.
GOALKEEPERS: Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Michael Orozco Fiscal (Puebla/Mexico), Michael Parkhurst (FC Augsburg/Germany), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy)
MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Helsingborg/Sweden), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Stuart Holden (Bolton/England), Brek Shea (Stoke City/England), Jose Torres (Tigres UANL/Mexico)
FORWARDS: Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
GOALKEEPERS: Jaime Penedo (Motagua/Honduras), Luis Mejía (CA Fénix/Uruguay), Alex Rodríguez (Sporting San Miguelito/Panama)
DEFENDERS: Román Torres (Millonarios/Colombia), Juan Carlos Cedeño (Alianza/Panama), Harold Cummings (Árabe Unido/Panama), Carlos Rodríguez (Chepo/Panama), Leonel Parris (Tauro/Panama), Roderick Miller (San Francisco/Panama), Roberto Chen (San Francisco/Panama), Richard Dixon (Sporting San Miguelito/Panama)
MIDFIELDERS: Eybir Bonaga (San Francisco/Panama), Rolando Escobar (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela), Gabriel Gómez (Junior/Colombia), Aníbal Godoy (Chepo/Panama), Jairo Jiménez (Elche/Spain), Alberto Quintero (Chorrillo/Panama), Marcos Sánchez (Tauro/Panama), Juan de Díos Pérez (Tauro/Panama)
FORWARDS: Blas Pérez (FC Dallas), Gabriel Torres (Zamora/Venezuela), Rolando Blackburn (Chorrillo/Panama), Cecilio Waterman (CA Fénix/Uruguay)