Luis Bueno
Friday July 24th, 2009

In a tournament that screamed for a new champion, the status quo won out. The U.S. and Mexico once again are facing each other in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, and for the second consecutive time, the two hated rivals will battle it out for regional supremacy.

Such a matchup is great for fans of both nations, as U.S.-Mexico duels tend to be pulse-pounding affairs. But the supposed parity that exists in this region is a myth. The impending arrival of teams like Honduras and Costa Rica was false advertising. CONCACAF is still the U.S., Mexico and everyone else.

That won't detract from the game, though. While Sunday's final (3 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Univisión) won't feature some of the players who have made this rivalry great -- American stars Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu and Mexico veterans Rafael Márquez and Oswaldo Sánchez -- it's a possible peek into the future of the rivalry.

Not the short-term future but one in the far-off distance. The short-term future -- Aug. 12 in Mexico City -- will see familiar faces back on the field in World Cup qualifying. On that day, American Gold Cup standouts Stuart Holden and Kyle Beckerman will give way to regulars Donovan and Clint Dempsey, while Andrés Guardado and Carlos Salcido should bump Pablo Barrera and Juan Carlos Valenzuela from the starting lineup for El Tri.

This match, however, doesn't speak well of CONCACAF. There were plenty of opportunities for an upstart nation to make a run at the title. Canada looked strong in the first round but faltered badly in its quarterfinal match against Honduras. El Salvador had a strong opening match against Costa Rica but didn't even get out of the group stage. Honduras and Costa Rica were big busts in the semifinals. Los Catrachos could do nothing to avenge a loss to the U.S. in World Cup qualifying a month earlier in the same venue, while los Ticos pushed Mexico to penalties but withered away into yet another Gold Cup failure.

Mexico still has a large obstacle to overcome. Even though this is an inexperienced U.S. squad, El Tri hasn't done well against any U.S. teams on American soil since 1999. Young U.S. squads took out their Mexican counterparts in 2000, '04 and '07.

The winner of this final, however, could get a psychological boost ahead of the crucial August date. A Mexico win could give even more faith that its struggles are a thing of the past and the second half of qualifying could see a sleeping giant awaken. A U.S. victory could give the Americans an even greater mental edge on their southern neighbors, and the U.S. needs as much help as possible in that department heading to the Azteca.

Club América has been a hapless team since the Clausura '07 season. Not coincidentally, that was Cuauhtémoc Blanco's last season with the Azulcrema. With its heart and soul gone, América scrambled to find itself and has failed terribly in that regard. Four seasons in the post-Blanco era and las Águilas have exactly zero playoff appearances.

Players are aware of the necessity to change things. As the Mexican league kicks off the Apertura '09 season on Friday, América captain Pável Pardo said the team needs to rediscover its winning ways -- and soon.

When asked what needed to change, Pardo made a simple reply: "Everything," he told SI.com by phone.

Perhaps it's that sense of urgency that has led to strong preseason efforts. América tied Inter Milan 1-1 last Saturday at Stanford Stadium and beat AC Milan 2-1 on Wednesday in Atlanta in the ongoing World Football Challenge. And while those results ultimately will matter little, América's efforts against some of Europe's elite speak well for the club.

"We've had a great preseason and have trained well," Pardo said. "Last season, we did have some good things, but also had some negatives."

What it may come down to for América is an overhaul. While the roster and manager remain relatively the same, things must be different from the start.

"We have to change our attitude," Pardo said. "We need to be a team that is more competitive, a team that fights, that runs, that works hard. That's what the public wants to see."

When it comes to Mexico, I think it finally got it together as a team [at the Gold Cup], which by no means is a "C" team like the one the U.S. is presenting because all of them are millionaires/starters in their respective Mexican teams. Ultimately, [they're] what the fans always wanted: new players who will play hard for their nation instead of being clowns and actors degrading the beautiful game. I even dare to say that this time, they have a good chance to win it all. -- Dan, Chicago

Even though all these players, as you say, are millionaires and starters on their clubs, there are some surprising and strong elements from this squad. Miguel Sabah had had a good tournament until the semifinal match; Giovani dos Santos is showing that he's ready for whatever Javier Aguirre needs him to do; and Guillermo Ochoa is finally showing that, with prolonged time in goal, he can and will produce. This team won't be the one that will face the task of helping lead Mexico to the 2010 World Cup, but many of these elements could be quite useful should Aguirre call on them.

I disagree with the statement [from last Friday's column] that if the U.S. team loses the Gold Cup, it won't lose any respect. If we lose, the world will say the Spain game was a fluke. We need to win and win decisively. My stepson, who is Portuguese, was saying it will take 10 years before the U.S. will be a world-class team and that the players need to play in Europe to be good players. But after the win against Spain and a good showing against Brazil, as well as the Galaxy drawing with AC Milan, he started thinking maybe we had finally become a contender. But if the U.S. appears that it's struggling against what the world considers weak teams, the comments will change that the U.S. is not consistent and one good game doesn't make a world contender. You and I know the coach has his sights on the World Cup and seems not to care that all competitions matter to the fans and the world. It will be the U.S. record, not who was on the roster, that will determine if our national team will be respected or just gets respect. -- Jim, Brea, Calif.

That's a good point, Jim. Outside of the region, nobody will care that the U.S. took a team of youth and inexperience to the Gold Cup. Results speak volumes abroad, and a loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final could take some of the luster off the Confederations Cup performance to those outside of the region. However, the U.S. is showing that the depth is quite strong and that Bob Bradley is doing an excellent job as U.S. coach. If those two things continue to carry the team forward, everything else will take care of itself.

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