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Golden Opportunity

ZAREPHATH, N.J. -- It hasn't exactly been a smooth ride through the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the U.S. national team.

Forget about the last-minute goal by Oguchi Onyewu against Honduras or even the late-game heroics by Landon Donovan to clinch a tournament-opening victory against Cuba way back on July 7. As far as results go, the road hasn't been too bumpy, considering Bruce Arena's side has gone 4-0-1 over the past two weeks.

What hasn't been easy is selecting a lineup due to a slew of injuries that just keep on coming. It started with Conor Casey suffering a torn ACL back in that match against the Cubans and continued with Steve Cherundolo spraining the MCL in his right knee against Jamaica on July 12. Injuries suffered by Tony Sanneh, Eddie Pope and Brad Davis kept them out of matches in group play, as well.

As luck would have it for the Americans, Pope re-injured his sprained left ankle and a hard tackle at midfield caused a similar injury to Pablo Mastroeni in Thursday night's comeback victory against Honduras. Both players will now be out for the Gold Cup final against Panama on Sunday. Add that to Cherundolo and Casey's injury, that's four players who have been knocked out of this tournament. When you also consider that Steve Ralston is recovering from a mild concussion and did not train on Saturday, Arena may only have 18 men from his original 23-man roster available for duty on Sunday with two of those players being backup goalkeepers in Marcus Hahnemann and Matt Reis.

"It has been a marathon," remarked Arena shortly after the team's afternoon training session in the Garden State ended on Saturday. "It's survival of the fittest."

Fortunately for the U.S., Arena has intelligently managed his roster throughout the tournament, giving every field player a chance to start a match while resting his big guns when he could in group play.

"The way you divide out minutes once you get to the last game means something," he said. "You look on a piece of paper and we distributed minutes -- not equally -- but fairly well. We don't have guys that are absolutely dead on the field at this point."

One of his players who this will presumably help is Donovan. Even though he's as physically fit as anyone on the team, playing each and every minute of five games over a two-week period wouldn't have been the best thing for him. The fact that he didn't start two matches and only made second half cameo appearances has helped keep him fresh.

"Now it's going to pay off," said Donovan. "They've had pretty much the same lineup for five straight games. They're going to tire."

Panama would actually love to field the same type of lineup that helped has helped them go 3-1-1 and reach their first Gold Cup final. However, a red card to their top defender, Luis Moreno, and yellow card accumulation to Ricardo Phillips will hamper Jose Hernandez's side on Sunday. Phillips, who scored two goals in Thursday's 3-2 triumph over Colombia, is a lightning-fast midfielder that gave the U.S. fits last September in Panama City. Only a Cobi Jones goal in stoppage time prevented the home side from pulling off the upset.

While Phillips and Moreno won't be able to play, Panama will be getting Julio Dely Valdes back. The 37-year-old had originally retired from the national team, but was brought back for this tournament along with his twin brother, Jorge, for one last hurrah. But after playing in the first two matches, he returned home to Panama for personal reasons. His status has once again changed now that his side has reached the finals.

"Apparently," said assistant coach Curt Onalfo, "he's back and available to play."

Dely Valdes and Julio Medina will both be players the U.S. will once again have to deal with in the midfield, while striker Luis Tejada will be the one to keep an eye on up top. A strong presence in the area with a 6-foot frame, the 23-year-old has scored three goals in the Gold Cup to lead his team in scoring. According to Onalfo, Tejada probably wouldn't have seen much time in this tournament had Jose Luis Garces been available. But since he had passport issues and did not make the trip to the U.S., it has given Tejada a chance to shine.

"He certainly has proved himself to be one of the dominant strikers in this tournament," said Onalfo. "We'll have to contain him and watch him closely."

Overall, the U.S. players are more skilled from top to bottom and play a more organized game, but Panama can be dangerous because of its collective speed and quickness.

"They have so many good athletes," said Frankie Hejduk. "They rely on that during games. They'll play very direct and try to get it to their guys up top. What sticks out about their forwards is that they make good runs off the ball. We gotta stay with our runners to be successful on defense."

In many respects the U.S. will be laying against a side that is similar to Honduras. They'll attack whenever possible and try to free up their players along the flanks with through balls. The Hondurans had success doing this in the first half of Thursday's semifinal match only to eventually tire from the hectic pace. It'll be important for the U.S. defense to stay organized and continue to be physical, especially if powerful striker Roberto Brown is on the field for Panama.

The U.S. is expected to stay in the 3-4-3 formation that it has been playing as of late. With Kasey Keller once again in goal, the three-man backline in front of him is likely to have Greg Vanny on the left, Jimmy Conrad on the right and conquering hero Onyewu in the middle. In the midfield, look for Arena to use Hejduk as an outside midfielder on the right side rather than as a wing back, which is his usual position. With Mastroeni out, Chris Armas will likely be in a holding position in the center of the midfield with John O'Brien on his left and Donovan in front of him. Up top, DaMarcus Beasley will be on the left, Josh Wolff in the middle and probably Clint Dempsey on the right.

What's intriguing about this match is that it could seemingly be a nail-biter should Panama get an early goal in the same fashion that Honduras did or a full blowout victory for the U.S. Since Panama took a 1-0 lead against the U.S. at home at Estadio Rommel Fernandez last September 8, the Americans have outscored them 10-0. That includes a 6-0 shellacking at RFK Stadium last October and a 3-0 victory down in Panama City on June 8.

It's almost as though the canaleros need to keep it close at halftime to remain in the match,

"In the games that we've won against them, and early goal has taken the wind out of their sails," said Hejduk. "They kind of fade away when they're down. And they haven't really gone for 90 minutes against us yet."

Should the U.S. score early it'll also make it easier for Arena, who will not be permitted to be on the team bench or in the locker room after getting a red card for dissent in the victory over Honduras. In his place, Glenn "Mooch" Myernick and Onalfo will coach the side, while Arena will likely watch the match from either a secure location in the stands or in Alexi Lalas' suite high above the field.

Not having Arena seems to be par for the course considering all the injuries the U.S. has endured during this tournament. Playing without their coach is just the next obstacle in front of the players, who said on Saturday that they are even more hungry to win the Gold Cup after having sacrificed a month away from their clubs and their families.

"We've been talking about it all week," said Hejduk. "At this point, we think we deserve it. We've been joking that we've been on this never ending quest for the Cup. We're all a bit tired of being away, but we know we're here for one reason: to win this tournament.

"We really expect nothing less than to be the ones kissing the Cup at the end of the game."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for He can be reached at: