Gold Cup 2013: X-Factors for Panama and United States in Tournament Final
The United States and Panama will meet in Chicago on Sunday to decide the winner of the 2013 Gold Cup.
The Americans, led by Landon Donovan and Chris Wondolowski, have been the best offensive team at the tournament. In five games, the U.S. has 19 goals, and the Donovan-Wondolowski combination has accounted for over half (10) of those strikes.
On the other side of the pitch at Soldier Field, Panama will be riding high heading into the final.
Led by Gabriel Torres' five goals, Panama has been equally dangerous on the attack during the Gold Cup. Timely strikes and an impressive win over Mexico will give the Panamanians the confidence they need to give the U.S. all it can handle.
As it often goes in tournament finals, the production—or lack thereof—of individual players could be the deciding factor in the match.
Both the U.S. and Panama have reached the finale with inspired team play, but there's a good chance individual contributions will be heightened in pursuit of the Gold Cup trophy. Keeping that in mind, here are two X-factors for Sunday's 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)
Panama X-Factor: Blas Perez
Blas Perez made his debut for Panama's national team back in 2000. Thirteen years later, he's still producing for his country in a big way on the big stage.
With three goals in Panama's last two knockout-stage victories, Perez has managed to provide a significant threat to opposing squads while the focus has been on Gabriel Torres.
If there's one weakness we've seen the U.S. show through their five games at the Gold Cup, it's on the defensive side of the field. The Americans have been vulnerable to the set piece when not on the attack themselves, and Perez has thrived for Panama in driving home long passes from his teammates.
His goal in the first half against Mexico was of that variety. Fox Soccer had a look at that goal just after it gave Panama a 1-0 lead over El Tri on Wednesday night:
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
Perez was not on the Panama roster when the U.S. took home a 2-0 victory in June's World Cup qualifying match. When he was added for the Gold Cup, ESPN's Max Bretos noted that "Super Raton" might have made a big difference in that outcome:
Blas Perez @FCDallas is a great competitor with a nose for goal. Was sorely missed for Panama when they played US earlier this month— Max Bretos (@mbretosESPN) June 29, 2013
He has a chance to make up for his June absence with a strong performance on Sunday.
In addition to goalscoring, Perez brings leadership and poise to a Panama squad that has been to the final at the Gold Cup just one other time (2005).
Perez wasn't on the 2005 Gold Cup squad, but he will be on the pitch on Sunday. If Panama is to beat the U.S., there's a good chance the MLS star will have a big say in that outcome.
United States X-Factor: Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson's journey from early stardom to U.S. banishment and back again is really something special. It isn't set in stone just yet, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Jurgen Klinsmann list Johnson as one of his forwards on the 2014 World Cup roster.
Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated had a great piece on Johnson on Saturday, noting that the 29-year-old has learned from his previous career mistakes and is eager to contribute to the national team moving forward.
Don't take that statement as a slight—Johnson has been one of the United States' best players since being called back up to the roster for the Gold Cup. As noted by MLS on Twitter, Johnson and three others helped to bolster the chances of the Stars and Stripes when they were recalled:
Johnson, who scored one of two goals the U.S. accrued against Panama during a June CONCACAF qualifying match, also has goals in both knockout-round games at the Gold Cup. As you can see in this tweet from ESPN's Stats & Info, it's been quite some time since he accomplished that feat:
If you missed Johnson's goal against Honduras in the Gold Cup semifinal, U.S. Soccer gave fans a chance to see it again on Twitter:
So far, it's really been a team effort for the U.S. From Donovan to DaMarcus Beasley and the coaching of Klinsmann, you can't pin their recent 10-match winning streak on any one player.
To win the Gold Cup, it's also going to take a group effort. But Johnson seems to fly under the radar when talking about U.S. stars, and he'll reap the benefit of that if Panama chooses to send multiple defenders at the other American options.
Whether it's scoring a goal in a third-straight match or getting a run to put pressure on Panama's defense, Johnson will go a long way in deciding whether or not the U.S. is able to hoist its fifth Gold Cup trophy on Sunday.
Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.
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