Bitter rivals USA, Mexico meet for Gold Cup

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports
Bitter rivals USA, Mexico meet for Gold Cup
Landon Donovan (center) and other USA players watch a replay of his winning goal against Algeria in last year's World Cup

A year and two days removed from that epic moment no American soccer fan will ever forget, another big day arrives for the United States in the form of the national team's most significant game since the last World Cup.

Yes, it really was 367 sleeps ago that Landon Donovan was in the right place at the right time and sent pockets of soccer fans around the nation into an ultimate frenzy with the winning goal against Algeria that sealed qualification for the second round.

You remember the scenes: Donovan's headlong slide towards the corner flag in celebration, before being engulfed by his teammates. Tim Howard on his knees at the other end of the field, overcome by emotion and joyful disbelief. Coach Bob Bradley leaping and sidestepping onto the field, arms aloft in triumph and relief.

Saturday's CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl does not have the gravitas of the World Cup, but still has far more than a fancy trophy on the line, with the USA seeking the right to feel good about its progress at the quarter-way point toward the 2014 World Cup.

Throw in the reality that Bradley's job could be on the line, plus bragging rights against a rival in Mexico against whom every passing year seems to bring further animosity, and the touchpaper is well and truly lit.

Operating in a region such as CONCACAF with only one other high quality team is both a blessing and curse for the national team, all but guaranteeing a place in every World Cup but providing a dearth of local competition in the intervening periods.

Clashes with Mexico then, especially with a tournament title at stake, take on increased significance and, rightly or wrongly, will be used as the primary barometer of the U.S. squad's progress.

Bradley's path has not been to the liking of all and the USA's series of disappointing performances in the Gold Cup group stage led to knives being sharpened. Victory in Los Angeles would ensure that Bradley will be given the opportunity to see out his contract and take the team to Brazil in three years.

The coach feels the adversity his players have been through, especially after a group stage defeat to Panama, will help them when facing the impressive Mexicans on Saturday evening.

"When you come into these types of tournaments you grow along the way," Bradley said. "You certainly grow when you lose and you look hard at certain things. I think that's been important. The first round is always about advancing and using the games to figure out where you are.

"I think we've gotten better from start to finish. There's a good level of confidence, and it's a strong group that has been through this before. If something doesn't go exactly the way that we want, we understand and that is part of it."

In many ways this is the perfect final, a showdown between the two dominant teams in the region and set off nicely by the fact they don't like each other. Mexico would love to tip Bradley over the edge, while the Americans would enjoy the storm of negative press that would surely follow south of the border if El Tri is defeated.

American soccer will pray for another seminal moment like Donovan's finest hour, but victory, however it is achieved, is needed if the national team's immediate future is going to include confidence and stability.