No witty headline is needed for this preview. A matchup between old rivals for a Gold Cup trophy and a Confederations Cup berth. It doesn't get much better than that. If you are a US soccer fan at any level of any league, this matchup should make your mouth water. If not, you might want to check your pulse. While I am always excited to cheer on the US National Team, when they play Mexico it takes it up another notch. It's a special rivalry between two soccer teams that transcends a regular match, and when you add to it the fact that a trophy and an even bigger tournament is on the line, it has me salivating.
It's even more interesting since the US is coming into the game riding a bit of momentum when they had started out the tournament very flat. Mexico, on the other hand, started the tournament with guns blazing, but has come back to the level of mortals the past couple of games. They needed an extra time push to get past Honduras, while the US got revenge for an earlier loss to Panama to reach the Gold Cup final. While the US was solid if unspectacular vs. Panama, they clearly are playing more solidly heading into the game, while Mexico looks a bit shaky. However, given the history between these two teams, I wouldn't read anything into previous form heading into the final match. Both teams will be playing 100%, and anything can happen. Expect both teams to step it up, regardless of previous form. For all of these reasons and more, this is a must see match. Join me after the break for some thoughts and analysis.
There are many intangibles at work for the final. Bob Bradley's status as US coach, for one. While many thought a shocking early exit in the Gold Cup would doom him, he was able to rally the team through a sluggish start and a loss to Panama to reach the final. This does not necessarily make his job safe. While a loss in the final is not embarrassing like a loss in group play would be, getting beat by Mexico is never acceptable in most fans eyes. Yes, it happens, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I think his job risk is even greater if he debuts an unexpected lineup that ends up backfiring. And yes, I am referring to one Landon Donovan. I will get to this point in a bit.
Mexico also has a couple of interesting stories to choose from. Left winger Andres Guardado is questionable with an ankle sprain. He had to be subbed off vs. Honduras after playing poorly and getting beat more than a few times. I don't see him playing vs. the US. This could definitely change the flow of the game. The most likely move for Mexico is to insert Angel Reyna in Guardado's place, although they may opt to juggle the lineup differently.
Another factor for Mexico is the emergence of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. Maybe emergence is the wrong word to use. If you follow the English Premier League at all, you will know that he got more playing time and got better as the season went on. He was one of Manchester United's most dangerous players by the time the season ended. He will definitely be a handful for the US team as he is fast, dangerous, a good finisher, and is a phenomenal all around player. I am not sure the US has seen a player this dangerous playing for Mexico in quite a while. They definitely haven't seen a player like him in this Gold Cup. This will be a key to the match. If they can find a way to contain him and quiet him down, I really like our chances. If he is able to run loose and take advantage of a younger back line, we will be in trouble. I think Bob Bradley definitely goes with as much veteran presence in the back line as he can to help contain a dangerous Mexico attack. While we have some brights spots in the back with the youth movement, I don't think we can risk the inexperience in a game like this with.
And now we get to the hot button issue everyone seems to be talking about. Landon Donovan. Does he start? Does he sit and come in as a sub? If he starts, then either Alejandro Bedoya or Sacha Kljestan likely is dropped from the starting lineup. Unless Bob decides to roll out a crazier lineup. Both Bedoya and Kljestan have played well, but in the end, I would take Bedoya starting. He has tons of energy and has a good work rate. Whoever Bradley decides on, let me make this clear: Landon Donovan should START VS. MEXICO, no questions asked. I don't want to hear about him looking good as a sub lately, or that he is being disciplined for missing training before a game due to a family wedding. That's all nonsense. Clint Dempsey wasn't disciplined for attending his sister's wedding the same day, so why would Donovan? I touched on this in a previous story. There is no need to repeat myself. Landon has been getting extra rest because he has looked tired, plain and simple. I don't know why people are reading more into this. The only other valid possibility is that he has been nursing an undisclosed injury. Obvious, the US team isn't going to announce this before a huge match vs. Mexico. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he has been injured after the final match is over.
I have read some thought on Landon recently. Some fans think he isn't capable of playing at a high enough level for 90 minutes anymore. I don't buy this either. When he is tired, he can look ragged for a full 90 minutes. But, when his legs aren't absolutely falling off his body from overuse, he can still play a full 90 right alongside anyone else. Another popular opinion circulating is that he plays in spurts, meaning he can have a good stretch of 10-15 minutes, then disappear for a good chunk of time. While this has a bit more credence to me, people fail to take into account his maturation as a player. Any mortal human declines in ability as they get older. Rather than considering this, many assume he just takes plays off, is slacking, or just doesn't have the ability to play a full 90 at the top of his game. To this I say that he has become a smarter player. He knows when to turn it on, and when to conserve energy a bit to have more at the end of the game. Rather than blindly saying he can't cut it for a full 90 anymore, I think people should realize he plays smarter. He is still hustling when he needs to, but he is conserving energy where it matters to make plays late when his team needs him. Remember that little goal in stoppage time in the World Cup last year? The one that, up to this point, is probably the greatest goal in US history? Yeah, he can still bring it when it counts.
Let's take talent out of it for a minute. We all know he has the talent. And no one on that bench that could start in his place could truly replace Landon Donovan. If that was true, he wouldn't be starting any games, let alone be on the team. So it's a ridiculous assertion to say that, in a big game against a rival like Mexico, you wouldn't want his talent or experience on the field as much as possible. Look at it this way. It's the eternal sports cliche. How many sports teams have that guy that is a bit older and may not be as flashy as he once was, but he is looked at as that universal leader that everyone looks to? It can be a big game that a team needs to win. It can be when a team has their back against the wall. It can be a time when everyone knows that the best option is the guy that has been there before, knows what needs to be done and how things need to be approached, and can lead everyone behind him to victory, regardless of his current skill level. That's what I am getting at. You can argue that his talents have diminished, but he can still get the job done. He is a US soccer legend. He is the veteran leader in the locker room that has been there before, and the INTANGIBLES he brings into this game are just as important as the tangibles.
The final thing I wish to say regarding the Donovan debate is this: he has played Mexico in Mexico (read this article for what that's like). He has played and scored in huge World Cup games. He knows what the pressure will be like, how to handle it, and how to be the leader the US team needs. Now isn't that something you definitely want on the field tomorrow? He's the veteran presence that everyone turns to when the biggest stakes are on the line, because the players know that he will find a way to take the physical and mental approach and tie them together better than anybody else can. If Bob Bradley starts Donovan on the bench tomorrow vs. Mexico, I think that should be grounds for getting fired. Our best lineup against Mexico includes Landon in the starting eleven.
As you can see, there are so many scenarios and interesting possibilities for tomorrow's match that it is a must see. And I have only listed a few of the scenarios going on regarding the match. As the game unfolds, it will resemble a team of two gladiators doing battle in front of 90,000 plus fans. US soccer truly has made some strides in the past 2 decades. It will be amazing to see how much more it grows in the future. However, all that matters right now is tomorrow's game. It's US vs. Mexico for all the marbles (at least in the Gold Cup sense). It's on US soil in front of a packed, loud house. It features US soccer legends and superstars. And, it's a chance to show off our national pride, win or lose. I can't think of a better way to show that than US once again scoring a crucial goal late. I don't care who it is, although it would be pretty cool if it was Landon. All I know is that we will get to see a loud, proud stadium with lots of American flags. You can't replicate that atmosphere in any of the other major sports. No matter what anyone says about soccer being beneath the other major sports in this country, tomorrow is our time to show those sports and fans why soccer is the best sport in the world, bar none. My call is 2-1 USA, with us scoring late to topple Mexico. Don't Tread On Me.