Winning an international soccer tournament is no easy task. It takes teamwork, timely scoring and a little bit of luck to accomplish the feat; the slightest of margins can be the difference in hoisting a trophy and going home empty-handed.
The United States and Panama will square off in the encore of the 2013 Gold Cup. The Americans blazed through group action and took down Honduras on Wednesday night to punch their ticket, while Panama ousted six-time Gold Cup champion Mexico to claim a spot in the final.
On Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, one team will hoist a trophy and the other will go home empty-handed.
It's a simple as that.
The United States clearly have momentum—and home-field advantage—on their side. After beating Honduras, the Americans will carry a 10-match winning streak into Sunday's final. It is the longest streak in the history of the U.S. national team.
Unfortunately, the Americans will not have their coach roaming the sidelines in Chicago. As reported by Brian Sciaretta of The New York Times, Jurgen Klinsmann has been suspended by a CONCACAF Disciplinary Committee for his actions in the waning minutes on Wednesday night:
Jurgen Klinsmann is suspended for the Gold Cup final #USMNT— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 27, 2013
Klinsmann did not like a Honduras player's tackle on DaMarcus Beasley and proceeded to spike the ball in anger. He was sent off by the referee and will pay the price by missing the tournament final.
Although Panama have just two top-four finishes in their previous six Gold Cup appearances, they have been in this position before. In the 2005 Gold Cup final, the Panamanians lost to the Americans in a penalty shootout.
The U.S. have a 9-1-2 career record against Panama in 12 previous matches. Team USA defeated Panama 2-0 in June during a CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifying match, while Panama's lone win over the U.S. came at the 2011 Gold Cup.
Although USA-Panama is not the match many expected when the tournament began, the potential for an exciting finish is still there. Jeff Bradley, writing for MLSSoccer.com, certainly thinks the finale will be must-see TV:
Wins for both sides would mean different things. As we prepare to catch the action from Chicago on Sunday, here's a look at what a win would mean for both the United States and Panama in the 2013 Gold Cup 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)
What Win Would Mean for Panama
The surface answer is easy: Panama would capture their first Gold Cup title with a win on Sunday.
Their two biggest wins at the tournament have now both come in the semifinals. In 2005, Panama beat Colombia to reach the last match. They took the U.S. to a shootout in that affair, but Kasey Keller stopped three of Panama's four penalty kicks to help give the Americans the win in a shootout.
It's hard to compare 2005 to 2013, but Wednesday's win over Mexico felt like a dynamic moment for the Panamanians. Heck, even national legend and New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was a part of Panama's win over El Tri.
A win over the U.S. on Sunday would trump both of Panama's semifinal triumphs in their previous Gold Cup appearances.
Additionally, it would be a huge boost to their 2014 World Cup hopes. Right now, those hopes are slim. Through six matches in the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying, Panama are ahead of only Jamaica in the group standings. The U.S. (13 points) and Mexico (11 points) sit atop the table.
Beating the U.S. in Chicago would completely flip the script for the Panamanians. Although it would not go toward their rank in the qualifying hexagonal, it would avenge June's loss to the Americans and give Panama some needed momentum heading into their final four qualifying matches.
The odds are stacked against the visitors in their quest to win the Gold Cup, but it's not as if they don't have the weapons to contend with Team USA.
From Gabriel Torres to Blas Perez, Panama have a solid mix of veterans and young talent who have provided early sparks and timely scoring in the Gold Cup so far.
Perez, who plays his club ball for FC Dallas and first suited up for Panama in 2000, continues to shine. Fox Soccer had a look at his goal against El Tri, and it was a thing of beauty:
GOAL Panama! Blas Perez gives his side a 1-0 lead over Mexico. Watch his powerful strike: http://t.co/dnmmoo87k9— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 25, 2013
Torres is tied for the Gold Cup lead in goals with five, while Perez scored goals in both of Panama's knockout-stage wins. Even Roman Torres has gotten in on the scoring act for his country, heading in the deciding score against Mexico.
If you thought the joy on the faces of the Panamanians was noticeable in their win over El Tri, that excitement won't even begin to describe how the players—and the country—will feel in the event that Panama pulls off the upset on Sunday.
What Win Would Mean for United States
For starters, the U.S. would increase their record winning streak to 11 games.
In their group-stage win over Cuba, the Americans tied a record for consecutive national team wins with seven. Three wins (Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras) later, the Americans are in unchartered territory in their efforts to keep this streak alive.
Are the Americans pushing for contender status when the World Cup begins next summer?
A win in the Gold Cup final would certainly boost the case of those who hold that assertion. They were ranked as the No. 22 team in the world prior to the start of the Gold Cup, but there's a good chance FIFA will move the Americans into the top 20 if their streak continues through their final qualifying matches.
A win would also cement the idea that Klinsmann is going to have a tough choice when filling out his roster for next summer's trip to Brazil.
Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard were all part of the first few wins of the United States' current streak. While they have been forced to move on to their club commitments, Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski and Nick Rimando have filled in admirably in their places.
Eddie Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have been stable pieces for Klinsmann as the U.S. continue to bolster their claim toward being a side that no one wants to face in Rio at the World Cup.
Even if the U.S. streak continues well into 2014, it won't make them a favorite to win the World Cup. But confidence—and team camaraderie—are fickle things, and the U.S. have both right now in the midst of the streak.
Who wins the Gold Cup final?
Another win on Sunday would continue to bolster the idea that the Americans can compete with any team in the world. Although it might not be true on paper, that simple thought can spread like a virus through a team. Couple that with the emotion of the World Cup, and teams coming into the tournament on hot streaks are always safe bets to make some noise.
Like Panama, the United States have four CONCACAF qualifying matches left. Currently two points ahead of Mexico in the standings, winning the Gold Cup would be a huge boost to the Americans before starting the next stretch of their 2013 season.
The tournament trophy is there for the taking. Between what's on the line for the United States and Panama, all bets are off as the two sides aim to win the 12th edition of the Gold Cup.
Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.