FOX Soccer Exclusive
CONCACAF the prize for teams in flux
As much as Saturday night’s Gold Cup final will be about arch-rivals battling for a trophy, the latest installment of the USA-Mexico rivalry is also about two teams in transition, working through the establishment of new identities.
The new World Cup cycle has served as the coming-out party for Mexico’s Golden Generation, the nucleus of the team that won the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2005 and reached the 2007 Under-20 World Cup quarterfinals (before losing to eventual champion Argentina).
PATH TO GLORY: USA
|June 7 (Group C)||Canada||2-0, USA|
|June 11 (Group C)||Panama||1-2, PAN|
|June 14 (Group C)||Guadeloupe||1-0, USA|
|June 19 (Quarters)||Jamaica||2-0, USA|
|June 22 (Semis)||Panama||1-0, USA|
That group has been marked for greatness for years. It was just a matter of time before this players took over Mexico's senior team. Some players, like Gio Dos Santos and Efrain Suarez, helped Mexico win the 2009 Gold Cup, but this current group is the more complete collection, a team primed for greatness, with the likes of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Pablo Barrera and Hector Moreno giving Mexico a strong, young nucleus.
The United States doesn’t quite have that sort of youth movement, but does have a quality nucleus of veteran talent that is still carrying the load. Where Mexico has already moved away from the group that represented El Tri at the 2010 World Cup, the United States entered the Gold Cup still leaning on 2010 World Cup starters Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
A transition is underway on the US team, though. Jermaine Jones has become an integral player on the team after finally overcoming the injury nightmare that delayed his arrival after switching from Germany more than a year ago. Teen striker Juan Agudelo and young midfielder Alejandro Bedoya have used this Gold Cup to force their way into the playing rotation, while Freddy Adu has re-emerged from his national team hiatus, helping boost the presence of young talent on Bob Bradley’s team, a presence that had previously been limited to Michael Bradley and Altidore.
Saturday’s final will be a great test for both sides, as the American veterans look to push and press the young Mexican team. No, Mexico’s youngsters aren’t likely to be intimidated, considering most of them play at high levels in Europe, and the crowd at the Rose Bowl will be a pro-Mexico crowd. What the Americans will have is an advantage in experience playing together in big matches, as well as considerable experience beating Mexico.
PATH TO GLORY: MEXICO
|June 5 (Group A)||El Salvador||5-0, MEX|
|June 9 (Group A)||Cuba||5-0, MEX|
|June 12 (Group A)||Costa Rica||4-1, MEX|
|June 18 (Quarters)||Guatemala||2-1, MEX|
|June 22 (Semis)||Honduras||2-0 (aet), MEX|
For the United States’ core group, Gold Cup titles in 2005 and 2007, a run to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and (for some) multiple World Cups is a resume that few Mexicans aside from Rafa Marquez and Gerrardo Torrado can even come close to matching.
The Americans will need every bit of that experience against a dynamic Mexico team with few flaws. Led by star striker Hernandez and creative midfield aces dos Santos and Andres Guardado, Mexico ripped apart opponents in the group stages before slowing down to record hard-earned wins against Guatemala (2-1) and Honduras (2-0 in overtime).
Those last two matches would offer the United States a good blueprint on how to slow down Mexico, if the Americans hadn’t already spent the better part of the past decade mastering that blueprint of staying tight defensively and pouncing on the counterattack. The United States can do what Honduras did, only more effectively, which is why it is foolish to think the United States can’t beat Mexico.
That being said, the Americans will still be the underdog. The role is a familiar one against Mexico, even after going 10-4-2 against Mexico since 2000, but the label feels more appropriate this time considering the firepower on the Mexican team, and the form El Tri has flashed at the Gold Cup.
This is what makes Saturday’s final even more important than past Gold Cup finals between these teams. A Mexico win would serve as convincing evidence that Mexico is once again the unquestioned leader in the region. It would also provide a confidence boost for a talented young team that could wind up ruling CONCACAF for the foreseeable future.
And a United States win? If the US team can knock off Mexico’s Golden Boys, it would give the Americans their third Gold Cup title in four tournaments and continued bragging rights in a series they've dominated for the better part of a decade. It would also give the current US team a head start on Mexico as both teams transition into a new era, an era that should feature an even stronger and more competitive USA-Mexico rivalry.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.