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Jul 24, 2009

U.S. aims to maintain psychological edge over El Tri

Back in 2007, the U.S. claimed the CONCACAF Gold Cup title with a 2-1 win over Mexico and in the process booked a ticket to the 2009 Confederations Cup. Everyone now knows how swimmingly that turned out for the U.S., but when the same two teams meet again in the Gold Cup final Sunday, the winner's claim of CONCACAF supremacy, as well as a bit of pride, are what is primarily at stake.

Of course, pride has proved to be more than sufficient motivation whenever these two sides get together. Mere friendlies burn with an intensity that often threatens to boil over, and even though both teams will be fielding understrength sides Sunday, the fact that there is a trophy on the line should result in the usual amount of on-field passion.

But for the U.S. players, there is an additional incentive. They have been slapped with a B-team label since the tournament roster was announced, and Sunday's match is the last chance for players to convince manager Bob Bradley that they deserve additional national team call-ups when the stakes are higher. For the results-conscious Bradley, prevailing over Mexico in a cup final no doubt will make it easier for these performers to remain in his thoughts.

"We knew from the start of this tournament that it was a great opportunity for a lot of players," Bradley told reporters following Thursday's 2-0 semifinal win over Honduras. "But we also made it very clear that we're defending champs, so it was with that idea that we got started, and we have gone about it the same way we do every time we come together."

Sunday's match looks to be lining up in a fashion similar to some other recent encounters. Mexico has a more experienced lineup available, one that on this occasion contains some dynamic attacking players like Gio Dos Santos and Carlos Vela. Per usual, El Tri should be able to count on a sizable advantage in terms of crowd support. Mexico also will have coach Javier Aguirre back on the sidelines after he served a three-game suspension for his part in a sideline altercation during his team's group-stage game against Panama.

Yet, during the past 11 matches between the two teams on U.S. soil -- a period that has seen the Americans go 9-0-2 -- such benefits have been rendered useless by U.S. teams that have possessed a clear mental edge. Bradley's first big match after taking charge of the national team was against Mexico in February 2007 and was contested under almost identical circumstances, yet the Yanks prevailed 2-0.

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

With so many inexperienced faces on the current squad, carrying that mental edge forward is as vital as it is difficult. It will fall to veterans like forward Brian Ching, left back Heath Pearce and central defender Jimmy Conrad -- who all have experienced victories over Mexico -- to pass on the psychological strength. If the comments of midfielder Stuart Holden following Thursday's match are any indication, it looks like that process is under way.

"We're not happy just getting to the final; we want to win," Holden said. "It's been a good group effort, and a lot of guys have earned their first caps. We've shown well and all around from one to 18. We're really looking forward to the final now and ... we can't wait to get back out there."

Scoring yet another victory over Mexico will require several other factors to fall into place as well. Pearce has had a solid tournament, and right back Jay Heaps, after struggling mightily in his national team debut against Haiti, has improved as the Gold Cup has progressed. But how they cope with pacy, skillful flank players like Dos Santos, Vela and Alberto Medina will play a huge role in Sunday's outcome.

If Pearce and Heaps can hold their own defensively, that will free up Robbie Rogers and Holden to be at their creative best. But if Rogers and Holden are forced to track back and shore up the flanks, the U.S. could find itself defending for long stretches and struggling to test Mexico's back line. Given how effective Holden has been throughout the tournament, it's critical for the Americans that the he is free to venture into the attacking half as much as possible.

A battle figures to rage in the center of midfield as well, where Logan Pause and Kyle Beckerman will go up against the likes of Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro. It often is left to Torrado to establish Mexico's physical presence in midfield, and it likely will be Beckerman's responsibility to match up with the Cruz Azul midfielder.

In the center of the U.S. defense, it's possible Bradley will have Conrad -- who sustained a concussion in the quarterfinal against Panama -- back at his disposal. But given the performance turned in by Clarence Goodson in the semifinal, in which he scored the Americans' opener with a bullet header, Bradley might opt to keep the status quo.

As for the rest of the roster, any thoughts that Bradley might call in some reinforcements for the final were put to rest after the Honduras match.

"I think that everyone came out of this match OK, and if that's true, then the 18 that we have will be the 18 for the final," Bradley said. "We would only need to go deeper into the roster if there are some injuries that we don't know about at this time."

So it will be down to the current group to earn the Americans their third consecutive Gold Cup and fifth overall, which would give them one more than Mexico. For a B-team, that's a glittering prize indeed.

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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