On Saturday evening in Pasadena, California, the United States and Mexico will take to the pitch at the Rose Bowl with the Gold Cup title at stake. It might be the most hyped match the U.S. has ever played outside of a World Cup, but even so, the crowd of 94,000 wil still be decidedly in favor of Mexico. It will be a spectacle in the Arroyo Seco and millions of eyes from around the region and even around the world will be focused on the match that has plenty on the line.
As much as the Americans are looking forward to the final, the Mexicans are looking forward to it even more. The 2009 Gold Cup final match-up between the U.S. and Mexico went to El Tri, 5-0, but neither team had their best squad for the tournament and it has largely been written off. Take away 2009 and the last time Mexico defeated the U.S. in the Gold Cup was 1998. The last time both teams sent their squads to the Gold Cup? It was 2007 and the Americans defeated the Mexicans in the final, 2-1. Mexico views this final as the chance to prove that they are the best team in CONCACAF and to get a leg up on their arch-rivals.
There is one problem with that outlook though. Mexico is selling themselves a bit short. Their desire to win the title and to do it against the Americans makes complete sense. A spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup is on the line and Mexico wants to end the U.S. dominance of them on U.S. soil. There is plenty for Mexico to play for, but they aren't playing to be the best team in CONCACAF because they already are. Regardless of who wins Saturday's final, Mexico is the region's top team.
Only one team in the region can match who Mexico has at striker. Costa Rica's Bryan Ruiz can make a claim to the best striker in CONCACAF, but nobody else can even get into the same discussion as Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez. No team in CONCACAF has the array of attacking talent that Mexico does, from Giovani dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera, to the deadly substitute Aldo de Nigris and of course, the aforementioned Chicharito.
If Mexico were dropped into South American World Cup qualifying, a rigorous home and home against every team on the continent, they could hold their own and probably even qualify. Even outside the tournament format of the Gold Cup or World Cup, Mexico can get the job done. The U.S.? Not so much. Right now, there is no doubt that El Tri is the best team CONCACAF has to offer.
For the U.S., that is perfectly fine. Being the best team in your region doesn't mean a whole lot a year after a World Cup. There is not a lot to be gained by being the best team in CONCACAF right now. The U.S. just needs to be better than Mexico on one day. They just need to be better than Mexico on Saturday. Do that, claim the trophy and work on being the best team in CONCACAF in 2013, when it really matters.
The best thing for the U.S. is that they can most certainly win a match in which they aren't the better team. In fact, they have made a habit of doing so. Most recently they did it two years ago when they defeated Spain, but they've done it before in Gold Cups and World Cups too. Being outmanned hasn't meant much to the Americans because they've fully embraced the idea that you don't have to be better than your opponents every day, just on the one day that matters.
The U.S. has done the trick to Mexico before too. A look at the 2007 Gold Cup final will show how an undermanned U.S. team can take down Mexico with a trophy on the line. They will be responsible defensively and play physical with a Mexican team that has shown it can be knocked around. When Mexico breaks the U.S. defense, Tim Howard will be there to save them. Mexico will lose shape and overcommit in the attack and the Americans will break the other way, picking up a goal. If that doesn't work, so will a set piece goal.
It may not be the prettiest way of playing, but it's a winning way and the U.S. can win. Really, that is all that matters. Mexico can have the crown as best team in the region for now. The U.S. will take the Gold Cup trophy and set their eyes on 2013. Then, with the maturity of Juan Agudelo and other youngsters, an entire 2012 to build the team and style and the true test of World Cup qualifying to test them, the Americans can be the best team in CONCACAF. Throw in a Confederations Cup and the U.S. can really prove themselves, but most importantly, they can qualify for the World Cup with ease.
Being the best team in CONCACAF in 2013 matters. Building upon that and making sure that you are peaking in 2014 for the World Cup is vital. Being the best team in 2011? Insignificant. The U.S. can just be better for one day. The fans can have their bragging rights, the players their trophy and the title of "best team in CONCACAF." Mexico can have that. It won't mean much then.