Gold Cup

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USA finally hits snag in Gold Cup run

FOX Soccer News preview Sunday's Gold Cup final between USA and Panama.
FOX Soccer News preview Sunday's Gold Cup final between USA and Panama.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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At last, a complication.

Things had been rather easy for the U.S. men’s national team during this 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Americans had swished through the tournament, winning all their games fairly easily, mostly playing good soccer. Opponents had crumbled. Goals had fallen in bunches at the right side of the field for a +15 goal difference. A record winning streak was shattered and now stands at ten and counting. Nobody had gotten hurt or suspended. The draw had even been kind.

“I guess I would have expected it be probably a little more difficult up to this point,” said the USA’s star forward Landon Donovan, who has lit up the tournament with five goals and seven assists.

But ahead of Sunday’s final in Chicago against Panama (3:30 PM ET, FOX) – which shocked Mexico in the semifinals – CONCACAF has suspended head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He lost his cool late in the 3-1 semifinal win over a forgettable Honduras. After a series of hard fouls by frustrated opponents went uncalled, he slammed the ball into the ground and was ejected. When the regional governing body’s disciplinary committee finally got its act together and announced the decision it could make at its discretion – missing its own 48-hour deadline by a good hour – it barred the laurelled German from his first final as a manager. Turns out things had been too easy after all.

The decision was a harsh one, given that Klinsmann’s anger, while unacceptable, was also somewhat understandable given the dubious caliber of refereeing. Two men were in the wrong. A fine or a suspended sentence of some such might have been more appropriate. But since no appeals will be heard, the USA had better turn to its contingency plans.

“We can’t let that affect us,” said captain DaMarcus Beasley. “We have to go out and play our game. [Klinsmann] gives us the tactics, but at the same time we know how to play football, we know how he wants us to play. I’m sure he’ll be cheering us on from wherever he’s sitting.”

CHICAGO BOUND!

Scroll through the best action shots from the Gold Cup's semifinal round.

However unexpected, Panama is a deserving opponent. They not only beat Mexico 2-1 in the semis, but posted the same score against El Tri in their opening game of the group stage. Managed by the ever immaculately dressed Julio Dely Valdes, the Canaleros form a savvy, physical and well-organized outfit. “We know Sunday is going to be different than any of these games have,” said Donovan.

After the U.S. had booked its ticket to Soldier Field, but before the second semifinal was played, Klinsmann had speculated about playing Mexico, about the continuation of their rivalry. He had expected the U.S. and Mexico to contest their fourth Gold Cup final in a row. Instead, the Americans face a rematch of the 2005 final, which they won over Panama on penalties.

But whatever the opponent, Klinsmann warned of the trappings that come with being favorites. “I think there’s no reason to be overconfident, because whoever you meet Sunday in the final, it’s going to be a nail-biter, it’s going to be very, very tough,” he said. “I think the team can be proud of what they did so far this tournament, the type of football they’ve shown, the tempo they’ve played, attacking football for the fans. But we know that it’s going to be very, very difficult.”

The Americans are indeed the popular pick to lift the cubistic urn. “The football that the United States has played to this point proves that they’re the favorite,” said Honduras head coach Luis Fernando Suarez. “After five games the USA has shown to be the most complete team in the group. But sometimes football can be unfair, that’s why you play the games.”

Donovan will be far and away the biggest thing the Americans have going for them. A bevy of players have contributed, but they have been supporting actors to his lead role. “We all are very, very pleased with the way he’s playing and the way he’s proving a point that he’s hungry to get back into our picture,” said Klinsmann of the 31-year-old forward, who returned to the fold following a burnout-induced winter sabbatical. “When you have his qualities you’re always going to be measured on the maximum he could offer you. So I told him that in our conversations: ‘Our benchmark is the best Landon Donovan ever. I’m not taking anything less than that.’”

Donovan may have delivered that in fairly short order, and against reasonable expectations. “I think it’s the most relaxed I’ve ever felt and the most enjoyable it’s felt in a long time,” said Donovan. “And I think when that’s the case I do really well.”

Donovan, then, has leveraged this B-team tryout into a skyrocketing stock with the A-team at a crucial time. “He’s shown in this tournament that there’s no doubt he’ll be on the World Cup team,” said Beasley.

But then, added the captain, the time for the many have-beens and wannabes on this team to make a statement ahead of Brazil 2014 is over. “It’s a final,” he said. “We have a chance to win something. That’s what I said at the beginning of this week. I told the group: ‘Forget about World Cup spots; forget about qualifying. We have a chance to do something special. And that’s to hold up the gold trophy at the end of this thing.’”

They will have to do it without their coach. But the USA can surely manage Klinsmann’s not being there – so long as Donovan is.

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