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Jul 23, 2009

Understrength U.S. perseveres to reach Gold Cup final

So what does it mean exactly if what can charitably be described as a U.S. "B" team reaches the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup? It might not say much for the quality in the rest of the region, but you still have to give U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his players credit for getting the job done during their 2-0 semifinal win over Honduras.

The fact is that the Americans didn't have any control over who they played against or what players their opponents chose to bring along. What they could control was their own play, and while the Catrachos -- who also brought an understrength side to the tournament -- put up plenty of resistance, the U.S. delivered a thoroughly professional performance and, in the process, had some players cement places on the American depth chart.

While Bradley always insists that the result matters, the aim of creating competition for the last few spots on his World Cup roster was always the primary aim for the Americans during this tournament. By that measure, the Gold Cup has been a clear success.

As it relates to Thursday's encounter, the players who helped themselves the most were largely the same ones who have been performing well all tournament long. Defenders Chad Marshall and Clarence Goodson kept Honduran attackers like Carlos Costly relatively quiet for almost the entire match, with Goodson also notching the game-winning goal. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman also added to his string of solid performances, and while this match didn't see him score a highlight-reel goal like he did in the quarterfinal against Panama, his defense and clever passing were once again on display.

But the two players who were involved in the evening's most dramatic moments were goalkeeper Troy Perkins and midfielder Stuart Holden. Perkins didn't have much to do on the night, which is what made his two game-saving stops from Marvin Chavez and Costly even more impressive. Along with his calm demeanor in the back, it appears that Perkins may yet punch his ticket to South Africa, although Marcus Hahnemann may have a thing or two to say about that.

As for Holden, his performance was a tad less consistent, but the moments when he chose to shine helped decide the game. His laser-guided corner kick late in the first half allowed Goodson to open the scoring with a thumping header, and his clever run off Brian Ching allowed him to feed Kenny Cooper for a 90th-minute tally that iced the game.

Gold Cup final
Sunday
U.S. vs. Mexico
East Rutherford, N.J.
3 p.m. ET

Such moments were needed against a Honduran team that was looking tough to break down early on, although a series of careless giveaways late in the first half helped the U.S. seize the momentum, and helped set the stage for Goodson's opener.

And the ability to conjure up such plays may be what wins Holden a spot on the full U.S. roster, not only next summer, but during the final stages of the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying. Chances are that the second half of qualifying will have some moments when the Americans will need that little bit of extra magic. And while such games will no doubt pose bigger challenges than those encountered at the Gold Cup, Holden, more than any other U.S. player at this tournament, has proven to be the one most capable of delivering something special.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There is the not-so-trivial matter of a Cup final to contest. Regardless of who prevails in the other semifinal, the U.S. will face its stiffest test yet. But if the Americans can prevail, it will no doubt go down as an impressive victory.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10):

GK, Troy Perkins, 8 -- Perkins was sharp in all phases. His first-half save of a Chavez attempt was top-drawer, but his late block of a Costly shot was even better.

D, Heath Pearce, 6 -- Got forward to good effect, and was solid defensively.

D, Clarence Goodson, 6.5 -- His distribution out of the back was shaky at times, but he had some vital interventions, and his thumping header put the U.S. in the lead.

D, Chad Marshall, 7 -- Didn't put a foot wrong, and kept Carlos Costly in check, save for one late chance.

D, Jay Heaps, 5.5 -- Defended his side pretty well, but wasn't as effective going forward. Nearly scored on a late header.

M, Robbie Rogers, 5.5 -- Dribbled into trouble too often, but Rogers helped the U.S. cause with some sharp crosses and aggressive plays in the attacking half.

M, Kyle Beckerman, 6 -- Got better as the game went on, and did plenty on the defensive side of the ball. He also initiated some attacks with some piercing long passes.

M, Logan Pause, 5.5 -- Did his bit to contain the opposition midfield, but his touches needed to be better. Was lucky to avoid a second yellow card midway through the second half.

M, Stuart Holden, 7 -- The best American moves flowed through Holden, and his service on Goodson's goal was inch-perfect. He went off the boil a bit in the second half, but his low cross allowed Cooper to ice the match.

F, Brian Ching, 6 -- Had some shaky touches early, but then went about doing what he does best; holding the ball up, winning set pieces and setting up his teammates. Unlucky not to score on a deflected first-half shot, and his back heel to Holden helped set the table for Cooper's goal.

F, Davy Arnaud, 5 -- Seemed to struggle with the pace and physicality of the game in the first half, as he was caught in possession a few times. Picked up his game in the second half.

Substitutes:

M, Santino Quaranta, 6 -- Did well to turn defense into offense, and nearly had a late assist to Ching.

F, Kenny Cooper, 7 -- The super sub did it again; putting himself in the right place at the right time to hammer home Holden's low centering feed.

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

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