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GOLD CUP: Primer for US-Mexico finale

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In 24 hours we’ll know how the latest edition of CONCACAF’s best rivalry went down as another US-Mexico Gold Cup finale is upon us. With previews and analysis filling the internet there’s a number of issues and storylines being written about. Here I will provide some of the more interesting ones along with some keys to Saturday’s finale and my prediction.

US changing of the guard?

Overall, most who’ve followed the US during the Gold Cup would say they’ve been uninteresting. The Yanks haven’t blown anyone out – actually they dropped a group stage game – and haven’t been truly dominant.

But one storyline is cropping up: Is this Clint Dempsey’s team now? Landon Donovan has long been considered the face of US soccer. The star that fans, media and teammates gravitate too while with the team.

But 2011’s Gold Cup has been about Dempsey. The Fulham man has been the player that’s made things happen for the US both in the build up and the attack. On the other hand Donovan has been placed in the role of “super-sub” the last two games.

With Dempsey taking the lead on the field, a big performance in the finale could signal that Dempsey and his friend Donovan may be switching places in the hierarchy of the US squad.

Down a few stars

On the topic of Donovan, a day ahead of the finale the LA Galaxy playmaker admitted to the media that he’s not been told if he’ll start or come off the bench. It’s lunacy on the surface but with his impact off the bench being better than his impact in games he’s started it’s not out of the question.

A decision to start the game with Donovan on the bench could either enhance Bob Bradley’s image – which has improved this week – or completely kill any good feelings he has built. This could truly be a make or break decision for Bradley’s public image.

On the Mexican side, playmaker Andres Guardado and defender Carlos Salcido are question marks for the game. Guardado suffered an ankle injury in the second half of Wednesday’s semifinal and Salcido is fighting a lingering heel injury from his EPL season.

Both players will be tough to replace but Guardado has been spectacular in the tournament. For my money he’s been the best Mexican player and missing him could hurt El Tri’s advantage in possession and distribution.

Is fatigue a factor?

The Gold Cup is a tough tournament because of the short timeframe and long travel involved in playing games across the US. With both teams playing a tough semifinal opponent and Mexico going into extra-time and only two rest days how will the effort be on Saturday night?

Keys to the game

For the US this game is about staying organized and creating quality chances. I emphasize the word quality. When the US get possession and go forward they need to make the most of it. Also, they need to shut the lanes down and kill the space for Mexico’s talented midfield to find their talented attackers. If the US can win the midfield battle they’ll win the game.

For Mexico it’s simple: Play your best. If both teams play their best Mexico will win. They’re a better squad – not by as much as it looked like in the group stage but they are better. With their talent and ability in the attack El Tri will get their chances and if players like Chicharito, Aldo de Nigris and Gio Dos Santos get in behind the US they need to punish the US. The main concerns for Mexico should be that the US has a solid and physical midfield full of workers. The space will be much tighter.

Prediction

This is a tough one because I don’t think either team’s playing its best soccer right now and there’s questions surrounding the participation of three of the game’s best players. Going on the information I have I believe it’s going to be a very tight game with Mexico pulling it out in the end.

Mexico 2-1 in the end.

Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com and contributes to Soccerlens.com during the Gold Cup. Follow him on twitter at @Dynamoexaminer.

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