If I had more guts and less bias, I would have picked Panama to defeat Mexico for the second time this month. The right two teams are meeting on Soldier Field Sunday in the Gold Cup final, to the chagrin of event organizers and Chicago’s massive Mexican-American population.
No matter, a textbook immovable object, unstoppable force matchup is staged. It’s the team with the hot hand (19 goals in this tournament for the United States) taking on the best CONCACAF defensive backline of the month (no more than one goal allowed per game during this Gold Cup for The Canaleros).
For casual USMNT fans, the man to keep tabs on will be Román Torres, Panama’s captain and defensive linchpin. He’ll be making his 59th international cap for his country, and is a 6’2’’ bruiser built like a small forward. Off set plays, like the corner kick goal that put away Mexico, Torres is similarly dangerous. Torres plays his club ball for Colombia’s awesomely named Millonarios FC, and high stakes scrums are second nature to the guy.
Offensively, Panama’s finishing touches hit from FC Dallas’ Blas Pérez and Gabriel Torres. The pair has netted eight combined goals during this run, and it’s the best scoring duo the USMNT has faced during the Gold Cup.
It’s been a tournament of redemption and rejuvenation for the USMNT’s famous faces, but the game will hinge on Matt Besler’s defending. The 26-year-old Sporting Kansas City man has been a revelation for manager Jurgen Klinsmann this tournament, providing defensive stability that soothes the post-traumatic stress of Steven Cherundolo’s unfit-for-command twilight years.
Though the CONCACAF headliners–Mexico and the United States–entered this Gold Cup with experimental lineups and b-teams, the USMNT got here on cruise control against the third world because its veteran stalwarts picked up where Juan Ponce de León left off and found the fountain of youth. Landon Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley, and Eddie Johnson have also overcome boilerplate athlete duress (bargaining chip politics between soccer clubs, injury, divorce, hair dye); their leadership and chemistry is so apparent that I didn’t bat an eyelash when Klinsmann was suspended on Saturday from coaching this final because of his on-field temper tantrum in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Speaking of Wednesday, Panama overcame the best homefield advantage Cowboys Stadium has ever hosted—a sea of jeering paisanos with flags, drums, and sombreros. You know the old cliché of taking the home crowd out of the game? The Panama-Mexico semi-final was Panama fearlessly prodding a lion, getting it more and more riled up through the fruitless stoppage time. It took patience and focus–this is the best team non-Mexican or American Gold Cup contender we’ve ever seen.
But Panama’s Mexican opposition was a train wreck with middling management, and a captain in Joel Huiqui that couldn’t overcome his mental errors long enough to lead. The USMNT is a more talented cluster of players peaking at the most opportune moment. The United States will win 2-1, and lift their fifth Gold Cup.