Gold Cup 2013: Biggest Keys for United States in Final vs. Panama
The United States was the first-ever champion of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 1991. Twenty-two years later, the Americans have a chance to win their fifth Gold Cup title and first since 2007 on Sunday in Chicago.
Team USA got two goals and an assist from Landon Donovan toward a 3-1 victory over Honduras on Wednesday night, paving the way for the Americans to earn a berth in the Gold Cup final for the fifth straight tournament.
The U.S. men will be riding a 10-match winning streak when they arrive in Chicago for Sunday's final. The red, white and blue took down Belize, Cuba and Costa Rica in group action. The U.S. team then defeated El Salvador before Wednesday's knockout-stage victory over Honduras.
As you can see in this tweet from ESPN's Paul Carr, the host nation has also been the most successful at this tournament:
Panama took down Mexico, 2-1, in the other semifinal match at Cowboys Stadium on Wednesday night, clinching the spot opposite the United States in the Gold Cup final.
Carr noted that the U.S. has been largely dominant against Panama in the 12 previous matches between the two sides:
#USMNT plays Panama in Sunday's Gold Cup final. U.S. is 9-1-2 vs Panama. Only loss: 2011 Gold Cup group stage.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) July 25, 2013
When the action picks back up on Sunday, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl claims that the best two teams from the 12-team Gold Cup field will be playing in the tournament final:
The two best teams from this Gold Cup are meeting in the final. Mexico didn't deserve to be there. Expect an exciting game.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) July 25, 2013
While the Americans will enter the championship match with some serious momentum and a vaunted winning streak, they might be without their manager for the battle with Panama.
Jurgen Klinsmann was sent off during the waning minutes of his squad's win over Honduras, and as you can see from this tweet from Fox Sports, it's looking increasingly likely that he will miss Sunday's final:
Klinsmann sent off, faces possible suspension for Gold Cup final. http://t.co/FkVoJtUtVp— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 25, 2013
Even if the U.S. manager is not in attendance on Sunday, the match must go on.
The Americans have some time to rest before returning to the pitch in Chicago on Sunday, but in the meantime, here's a look at three of the biggest keys for Team USA in the final.
2013 Gold Cup Final
Who: United States vs. Panama
When: Sunday, July 28, at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Watch: Fox (Check local listings)
Biggest Keys for United States
Get Off to Strong Start
Through five matches at the 2013 Gold Cup, the United States has destroyed the rest of the field in terms of scoring goals.
The United States has 19 goals heading into the final. Panama is the next-closest squad in terms of scoring with 11. Eight of those U.S. goals have come in the first half, while four of Panama's have come in the first 45 minutes of matches.
That being said, each squad has shown the ability to come on strong in the second half.
Panama showed us just that against Cuba, scoring four goals in the second half to turn a 2-1 nail-biter into a 6-1 blowout. It did so again against Mexico on Wednesday night, as Roman Torres' second-half header was the difference in sending El Tri home early.
The U.S. has had similar success in the final frame, picking up three goals in the second half against Belize, Cuba and El Salvador.
We know that the second half will be the deciding force in these matches. Each squad has proven that in making it to the final.
Getting off to a quick start will be crucial for the Americans. They've recorded a goal inside the 21-minute mark in three of their five Gold Cup wins, and getting another quick strike would make the Americans heavy favorites to survive whatever second-half onslaught Panama brings their way.
The first time these two nations met in 2013, the United States captured a 2-0 victory. Jozy Altidore's strike at 36 minutes gave the U.S. a lead it would not relinquish, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Klinsmann's men push the pace early against Panama to accomplish a similar feat.
Keep Manuel Gabriel Torres in Check
More specifically, the U.S. must keep the Panama striker from getting a clean look at the net.
Torres is tied with Donovan and breakout U.S. star Chris Wondolowski for the lead in individual goals scored at the Gold Cup this year with five, and three of those goals have come via penalty kick.
The U.S. must not allow Torres to draw a cheap penalty near the box or even sniff an open look. American defenders will have their hands full just keeping the ball in front of them; Torres is third at the Gold Cup in total shots with 17.
Midway through Panama's match with Cuba, Torres had all of Panama's Gold Cup goals. As you can see in this tweet from Fox Sports, Torres was keeping Panama afloat before its second-half onslaught in the quarterfinals:
HT: Panama 2, Cuba 1. Manuel Torres' brace has wiped out Cuba's initial lead. Torres now has all 5 of Panama's goals in the #GoldCupOnFOX.— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 20, 2013
He did not score against Mexico, but his performance so far has gained national attention.
According to Dan Boniface of the Denver Post, the Colorado Rapids are close to bringing the striker to play club soccer in the United States too:
If Torres is goal-less on Sunday, the United States will have to feel good about its chances in the final few minutes.
Let Landon Loose
Alliteration aside, Donovan has been one of the best players for the United States in his return to the national team.
The 10-match winning streak has been nothing short of an inspired team effort across the board, but Donovan's return has infused new life into Klinsmann's squad and has certainly given the manager a tough choice when thinking about his 2014 World Cup starters.
His performance on Wednesday was nothing short of magnificent. With a setup for Eddie Johnson's first-half goal and two of his own by the end of the match, Donovan was all over the pitch.
This tweet from Carr confirms that assertion:
Donovan made the most of his chances, and the U.S. attack reaped the benefits of his efforts. As you can see from this U.S. Soccer tweet of his second goal, he was in the right place at the right time for most of the match:
WATCH: Landon Donovan's goal in the second half to give the USA a two-goal lead - http://t.co/kliSuGGs2n— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) July 25, 2013
While the goals have been outstanding, some of his work getting the ball to other teammates has been even better. Fox Soccer had a look at Donovan's pass to Brek Shea against Costa Rica, and it is a thing of beauty.
Don't blink! Johnson makes a huge save, then on the fast break Donovan plays Shea through for the USA's goal. Watch: http://t.co/t948oO5DMk— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 17, 2013
Since Donovan's return from a Team USA hiatus, Klinsmann hasn't leaned on him in the way the national team used to during his previous trips to the World Cup.
Don't expect the U.S. to shy away from the team-first effort that's allowed it to reach the final, but a heavy dose of Donovan in the attacking half would be a smart move based on his current level of effectiveness.
Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.
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