Gold Cup Finals 2013: Biggest Storylines to Follow in USA-Panama Clash

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Gold Cup Finals 2013: Biggest Storylines to Follow in USA-Panama Clash
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Only one 2013 Gold Cup match remains. 

This year's final will be held on Sunday at Chicago's Solider Field and will feature two teams in the same CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifying group. 

As noted by Major League Soccer's Twitter account, only one team can leave Chicago as victors:

In one corner, we have the United States. The host nation blasted through group play and took down El Salvador and Honduras in the knockout stage to advance to Sunday and will be making their 10th appearance (four wins, five second-place finishes) in the tournament's final match. 

In the other corner, we have Panama. The Panamanians took down Mexico in a semifinal match on Wednesday to punch their ticket to the final and will be looking to avenge a 2-0 loss to the Americans from a qualifier in June of this year. 

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. has a career 9-1-2 record against Panama in international action, with the lone loss coming in the 2011 Gold Cup group stage. 

As both teams prepare for the final, the fate of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is still up in the air. According to Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, a CONCACAF committee was meeting on Friday afternoon to determine whether or not he would be eligible to roam the sidelines on Sunday:

Klinsmann was sent off late in Team USA's 3-1 victory over Honduras. He did not like a tackle on U.S. winger DaMarcus Beasley and acted on his frustrations by spiking the ball in disgust. 

With or without Klinsmann, the 2013 Gold Cup final should commence as scheduled. As we prepare for the upcoming tilt between the two nations, here's a look at a few of the biggest storylines to follow. 

 

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 Storylines to Follow

Landon Donovan's Impact

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan has been a stalwart on the U.S. national team for quite some time. A member of three previous U.S. World Cup teams (2002, 2006, 2010), Donovan was not a lock to return for his fourth stint with the squad before the Gold Cup began. 

There are few doubting that he's worthy of a roster spot after his performance through five Gold Cup matches. 

As you can see in this tweet from ESPN's Stats & Info, Donovan ranks at or near the top of the leaderboard in three rather important offensive categories:

That being said, Donovan doesn't need to dominate the ball to create positive plays for his teammates. 

ESPN's Paul Carr had a heat map of Donovan's touches on Twitter:

Despite having the fewest touches of any U.S. starter, he was all over the pitch and involved in all three American goals against Honduras on Wednesday. 

That includes his second strike of that match, a "right place, right time" goal after Alejandro Bedoya had gotten behind the defense. U.S. Soccer's official Twitter account had a second look at that goal for those who might have missed it. 

All of a sudden, the U.S. is oozing with talent and position battles in preparation for next summer's trip to Brazil. Donovan has forced his way into the conversation with his play at the Gold Cup. 

If the U.S. does exit Sunday's match with their fifth Gold Cup trophy, there's a good chance Donovan will have played a big role in that outcome. 

 

Goals, Goals, Goals

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

From individual talent to timely goals, both the United States and Panama have reigned supreme as the two best offensive teams at this year's Gold Cup.

The U.S. (19) and Panama (11) are one-two in the overall goals scored category at the Gold Cup, and since no other team is still in contention, that's how they will leave the tournament, too.

From a team standpoint, both sides have collectively come up with scores in crucial moments.

Brek Shea helped the U.S. take down Costa Rica with a goal in the final 10 minutes during the group stage, while Roman Torres' header in the second half against Mexico gave Panama the distance needed to outlast El Tri in the semifinals.

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Individually, stars have also emerged. The Americans have relied on Donovan and breakout star Chris Wondolowski to carry the load. The duo have five goals a piece through five Gold Cup games, and are both tied with one other player in that category atop the tournament leaderboard. 

That player is Panama's Gabriel Torres. Torres had Panama's first five goals of the tournament, but did not factor in his squad's win over Mexico. Blas Perez has three goals for the Panamanians, all of which came in the knockout stage. Together, Torres and Perez have collected over 70 percent of Panama's goals. 

Recent history would suggest that a high-scoring game might be in the cards for Sunday. 

The last two Gold Cup finals (both won by Mexico) fall under that category. El Tri scored five goals in a victory over the U.S. in 2009 and scored four against the Americans in their 2011 win. 

There's always the threat of a defensive battle, but current evidence suggests that fans in Chicago will enjoy a high-scoring match on Sunday. 

Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson scored in Team USA's June win over Panama, but it would be no surprise to see several players on both sides get in on the action with the tournament title on the line. 

 

The Streak, and What it Means

As Goal USA reported on Twitter on Wednesday night, the U.S. squad will carry a 10-match winning streak into Sunday's final:

It's the longest streak in U.S. national team history.

Team USA broke the record for consecutive wins in the group stage at the Gold Cup. This tweet from ESPN's Stats & Info confirmed that the Americans were entering new territory before their match against Costa Rica:

It's a great time to be a fan of the U-S-of-A these days. 

NBC Sports Soccer might have said it best with this post on Twitter:

The U.S. has several World Cup qualifying matches remaining this year. Once the Gold Cup is behind them, the Americans will shift their focus toward being the best squad they can be prior to next summer's World Cup.

Before the Gold Cup began, FIFA listed the United States as the No. 22 team in the world. A win over Panama might force the governing body to move the U.S. into the top 20. 

As that number continues to drop, the overall American confidence will continue to rise. As that happens, the United States will continue its march toward being a team no one wants to face next summer. 

 

Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter. 

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