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Jun 23, 2007

The form book appears to favor El Tri

At the beginning of the Gold Cup, both the United States and Mexico appeared ready to flex their considerable muscle over the rest of CONCACAF, and as predicted, both teams will contest Sunday's final. Yet rather than stamp their authority on the tournament, both teams appear to be running on fumes at the finish, which makes finding an edge for either side tougher than usual.

Mexico lost to Honduras in group play, and had its share of shaky moments against a shorthanded Costa Rica side before subduing Guadeloupe 1-0 in their semifinal. The U.S. endured no such hiccups in the competition's initial phase, yet it appears to be struggling, having trouble shutting the door on Panama in the quarterfinals and Canada in the semis, despite having chances to bury both teams.

For that reason, the form book would appear to favor El Tri. Over the last two games, Mexico's defense has looked much more composed than that of the Americans, whose back line has suffered from multiple personality disorder throughout the tournament.

Mexico would also appear to have a considerable edge in some key parts of the field. With Frankie Hejduk suspended, it now looks like Frank Simek or Jonathan Spector will be asked to contain speedy Mexican winger Andres Guardado. Never mind that Guardado was completely ineffective against Guadeloupe and subbed at halftime. The impression he made in last February's friendly between the two sides, in which he torched a parade of American defenders, will no doubt give U.S. head coach Bob Bradley pause. At this point, Simek's combination of toughness and mobility would appear to make him the better choice, although Spector's passing and slight edge in experience gives the U.S. something different out of the back.

As the tournament has progressed, each side has employed more defensive-minded players in the center of the park, but with Mexico's Gerardo Torrado and the Yanks' Michael Bradley both suspended, it will be interesting to see if either coach, Mexico's Hugo Sanchez or Bradley, opts for a more attack-minded replacement.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco has looked sharper as the tournament has gone on, and dropping him into midfield would see him reacquainted with long-time American nemesis Pablo Mastroeni. Such an approach would also allow for more firepower up top, with the likes of Nery Castillo or Omar Bravo partnering Jared Borgetti. Castillo has reportedly been furious over his lack of playing time throughout the tournament, but a start in the final might be enough for Sanchez to smooth things over.

Given the uneven play of American center backs Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra, adding Castillo or Bravo might give El Tri more of an advantage, despite Onyewu's past success against Borgetti. And given the way Mexico's attack has struggled in this tournament, El Tri would appear to need all of the attacking help it can get.

Gold Cup schedule
Final
June 24
U.S. vs. Mexico
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
3 p.m. ET

Bradley's midfield options are more limited in that neither Benny Feilhaber nor Ricardo Clark possesses Blanco's artistry on the ball, although Feilhaber is the more cultured passer of the two. But the way Mastroeni and Clark struggled to keep possession back in February when paired together, seems to indicate that Feilhaber is a more likely candidate to start.

Bradley will also need to determine what to do about a front line partner for Clint Dempsey. Taylor Twellman and Brian Ching have struggled with their finishing, but both players still have the ability to contribute to the attack when their shooting is off, which can't be said for Eddie Johnson. Johnson, MLS' leading scorer did little to pressure the Canadian back line last Thursday, and the U.S. will need more in Sunday's final.

Perhaps the two most compelling matchups will see U.S. wide players Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley going up against Mexican outside backs Carlos Salcido and Ricardo Osorio. Much of the U.S. attack has flowed through Donovan and Beasley, but Salcido and Osorio, who play their club soccer with PSV Eindhoven and VfB Stuttgart respectively, represent a huge step up both in terms of talent and experience compared to the American duo's previous opponents. Both Donovan and Beasley have had their successes against Mexico in the past, and if they can succeed in bringing Dempsey into the attack, the Americans' chance for victory improves markedly.

That said, when it comes to a rivalry match like this one, talk of matchups and the form of various players will only get you so far because none of the usual soccer adages apply. Think possessing the ball is the key to winning? Against the U.S., Mexico has made an art form of failing to score despite owning the ball. And as wasteful as the Americans have been in front of goal during the Gold Cup, they're absolutely lethal when presented with even the slightest of chances against their neighbors to the south.

It leaves one to wonder just how many times this scenario can be replicated. One suspects that at some point, Mexico's technical edge will pay off, and that they'll finally breach the U.S. defense on American soil, something they haven't done for eight years (Mexico's last goal on U.S. turf was on March 13, 1999). That's where the American's mental edge over Mexico comes into play. The onus has rarely been on the U.S. to entertain, and that especially applies against Mexico, where the U.S. has been content to frustrate its opponents into defeat. The longer this game goes without a goal, the more it will play into the Americans' hands. And if the U.S. can keep in check its tendency to fade late in matches, then perhaps it'll be the team breathing easy at the final whistle.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.