The rivalry between Mexico and the United States is, without a doubt, the best in CONCACAF. If not for the passion of the fans, it's the best simply because of the quality of the teams. They have been the two finalists in each of the last two Gold Cups and they finished as the top two teams in the 2010 World Cup qualifying hexagonal. In their last four competitive matches, each team has two wins and two losses. But despite the recent history between El Tri and the USA, the Gold Cup Final shouldn't be compared to any recent matches between the two teams.
Both teams are completely incomparable to the 2009 Gold Cup final, where neither the USMNT or Mexico brought their best XI, and too much time has passed since 2007 to assume that match has any kind of bearing. Even the World Cup qualifying matches aren't applicable, just for a couple of simple facts. For one, 'Chepo' Jose Manuel de la Torre is nothing like Sven-Goran Eriksson or Javier Aguirre. However, more importantly than that, Mexico didn't have 'Chicharito' Javier Hernandez.
In a game as dependent on team concept and team chemistry as soccer is, it's tough to believe that the addition of one player can cause a complete turn-around for a team. However, Chicharito has done just that, filling the void that was left when Jared Borgetti started to get old in 2005. Somehow, Borgetti limped through that final in 2007. From the 2006 World Cup until the 2010 World Cup, Mexico didn't have a consistent, reliable striker. Zombie Borgetti started in 2007 and Miguel Sabah started the 2009 Gold Cup Final, while Guillermo Franco and Carlos Ochoa started the two World Cup qualifiers. Sadly, the United States did not have the fortune of facing Mexico in a big game that Omar Bravo started during this period.
Mexico had another experience with a gap between class strikers, in the mid-90s. There was a good four year period between when Hugo Sanchez got too old to be effective and when Borgetti emerged. The exact same thing happened to Mexico again between 2006 and 2010, but it was worth the wait. Chicharito has emerged as a star, while Giovani dos Santos has finally found out that there is more to life than getting drunk and scarfing down pizza. He's replaced Cuauhtemoc Blanco in a similar manner, as Mexico were stuck with Nery Castillo for a period of time they would probably like to forget. Sad, I actually kind of liked Gio's raccoon belly.
While Mexico have improved, the United States have arguably improved as well. No disrespect to Brian Ching, who started all four of the above-listed games, but he's not exactly a dynamic striker. He was solid in the air and solid at holding up the ball, but even at his young age, I'll take Juan Agudelo over Ching any day. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are more experienced, Jermaine Jones is a huge upgrade over Ricardo Clark and Alejandro Bedoya is better than Zombie DaMarcus Beasley.
Also, it appears that the days of Bob Bradley blindly playing a 4-4-2 (or a variant) with no regard to his opponent's shape are gone. Such a system would probably allow Mexico to keep the ball for an incredible amount of time, which would lead to the United States getting frustrated and eventually drifting out of position. Instead, Bradley is likely to use three men in the center with one of Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan or Sacha Kljestan playing in front of two holding midfielders.
His team selection is a minor mystery, complicated by a number of factors. Donovan has come off the bench in the last two matches for the United States, but leaving the USMNT's all-time leading goal scorer out of the starting lineup against Mexico sounds like a really good way for Bradley to lose the dressing room. His inclusion is a given, as is Dempsey's, meaning that either Kljestan or Bedoya must be dropped. Agudelo could get dropped in a bizarre move where Bradley plays Dempsey as a false nine, but it's doubtful he's that adventurous.
Mexico's lineup selection would be clear-cut if everyone was healthy, but Andres Guardado's sprained ankle complicates things. Honduras succeeded at beating the living hell out of the left winger in the semi-finals, and as a result, he's doubtful for the game. Angel Reyna offers the closest thing to a like-for-like swap for El Tri, while a move to a 4-4-2 with dos Santos on the wing and Aldo de Nigris up top doesn't seem totally out of the question.
Guardado's injury is a massive loss for Mexico, as he was a candidate for player of the tournament before going down. Now, that seems like an honor that will almost certainly go to Hernandez or Dempsey, who will both start the final. You would be hard pressed to find someone who makes a coherent case for anyone but Hernandez and Dempsey being the most important players to their respective teams, and they will be the attacking players to watch in Saturday's game.
The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. will be sold out for the game, likely with 75 percent of the crowd being Mexico supporters. Once again, the United States will be playing a road game on their home soil, much like they do in every USA-Mexico game that is not played in Columbus, Ohio. It's an atmosphere many of the players have dealt with before, and it won't be any different than the 2007 game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Benny Feilhaber is injured and therefore, unable to pull a rabbit out of his hat for the USMNT, but perhaps a new legend will be made this year.
For more on how the two teams got to this point, check out our USA vs. Panama stream and our Mexico vs. Honduras stream. For more updates leading up to USA vs. Mexico, bookmark this StoryStream. For all of our previous Gold Cup coverage, check out the Gold Cup 2011 section. For more on Mexican football, including the Mexican national team, the Mexico vs. USA game, and the Mexican Primera, check out SB Nation's Mexican football blog FMF State Of Mind.