The Gold Cup final on Saturday between Mexico and the U.S. men's national team is a battle of the best players from both countries. Not player-pool guys with mainly MLS resumes or seldom-used reserves in Europe for the Americans, and not the type of team Mexico would use for a friendly in a summer tour of the U.S.
The best soccer rivalry in North America comes to a head once again tomorrow night at the Rose Bowl when El Tri and the Yanks play for the North American championship. At stake is a spot in the Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013, a tournament that features the champions of every major FIFA soccer region in the world.
The U.S., as Gold Cup champs in 2007, represented CONCACAF in 2009 in South Africa and made a memorable run to the final before losing to Brazil.
In 2009, Mexico won the Gold Cup over a USMNT roster that was not considered the American "A" team. It was a 5-0 drubbing at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, and even though most of the U.S. players on today's Gold Cup team weren't there, avenging that loss will almost certainly be on their minds.
Has to be, in my opinion. These players are a family and soccer is a fraternity. This is a fierce rivalry. These are the premier national teams in our region, the ones who bear the standard for CONCACAF in global competitions. And throwing aside all of the political and national pride ramifications and undercurrents, when it's Mexico vs. USA, everybody wins.
There can be no "B" or "C" team excuses this time for the U.S. if it loses Saturday. Just as Mexico shouldn't be able to claim that it was missing as many as seven players as a reason for losing. Both lineups are loaded with quality players with plenty of World Cup and international credentials.
Even though the game will be in the U.S., there's no question that the vast majority of the 90,000-plus in the Rose Bowl will be cheering for Mexico.
The U.S. players recognize that. And the bitterness of the rivalry still runs deep for those who used to be part of it.
Said former U.S. player Eric Wynalda: "I'm never going to say Mexico is going to win. Even if I think it, I'm never going to say it out loud."
Wynalda believes the U.S. has two things in its favor, saying "it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
Mexico got off to a high-scoring start in group play but lost some of that sizzle in the quarterfinal and semifinal round, both closer games. El Tri defeated Honduras 2-0 in overtime periods on Wednesday, and Wynalda feels that took a lot out of the players.
Mexico is depleted on its roster anyway, with five players currently out due to testing positive for a banned substance and injuries to a pair of key players, Andres Guardado and Carlos Salcido, who could miss the match. But it has depth at the attacking positions led by Manchester United breakout star Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos.
The U.S. will be without forward Jozy Altidore, who was injured earlier in the tournament, but has plenty of other playmakers. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey teamed up for the goal against Panama that sent the U.S. into the final, and Tim Howard is acting like Tim Thomas in goal, shutting out opponents over the past 322 minutes.
Howard's reflexes will be critical, as Mexico will look to exploit weaknesses in the U.S. defense that Jamaica and Panama (in group stage) exposed.
That said, the U.S. comes in playing its best of the competition. But Fox Soccer analyst Kyle Martino thinks coach Bob Bradley's job could be in jeopardy if the U.S. loses this match, especially on American soil.
Two of the Fox Soccer guys, Wynalda and Martino (Christopher Sullivan takes a more neutral stance) seem to think this game could go to the Americans with the U.S. team peaking and Mexico looking tired after two overtime sessions a couple of days ago. History is also on the side of the Americans, who seem to raise their game against Mexico especially at home -- even if it will feel more like a Mexico home game.
I picked the U.S. to win when asked to predict a few weeks ago, but I did so knowing that most of my sports predictions go the opposite way. I chose with my head and not my heart!