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U.S.-Mexico Gold Cup final will be a close-fought affair despite form

If we hatch predictions based solely on recent form or on the talismanic presence of a certain, burgeoning Mexican scoring sensation, Saturday's Gold Cup final really should be no contest.

But everyone familiar with U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry understands that any clash of the regional titans is more than the sum of its parts. Plus, the U.S. has a few reasons to feel good about its fourth consecutive Gold Cup final appearance, explaining why odds makers have declared Mexico only a slight favorite.

So much will be on the line when the teams kick off at 9 p.m. ET (Fox Soccer, Univision) at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., once the de facto home for U.S. soccer but now a site that hasn't hosted a U.S. match since 2002.

First, a place is there for the taking among the small field at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. That event serves as a dry run for organizers of the 2014 World Cup. While World Cup organizers work out any kinks, participating teams get an important head start on World Cup prep.

There is always regional pride to consider in a Mexico-U.S. series with ample baggage these days. Here, it's advantage U.S., because the northern neighbor has definitely gotten the better of this series over the last decade.

And there are individual subplots that need playing out. Landon Donovan manufactured one very important moment in Wednesday semifinal win, but his overall Gold Cup has largely been one to forget. He had been unimpeachable for so long in the U.S. shirt, so Donovan would love to cap the tournament with a sprightly rally near his Southern California home. (And what a place for it; Donovan scored in his U.S. debut back in 2000 in the teams' last meeting in or around Los Angeles.)

Clint Dempsey is having a swell time of things with three tournament goals, and a sparkler in Pasadena could give him even more leverage as he sorts out his club options. Dempsey, by the way, shrugged off assumptions that the fabled Rose Bowl, site of the 1994 World Cup final, will lean heavily Mexican. U.S. players understand the landscape of the game here, he said, and they know how to just get on with it.

Defender Eric Lichaj seems close to cementing his spot as coach Bob Bradley's first-choice left back, although the young Aston Villa man has yet to be pressed in the Gold Cup as he surely will be on Saturday; Mexico leads the tournament with 18 goals in five matches. Compare that to a fairly flimsy seven for Bradley's team.

And then there is this fascinating rebirth of Freddy Adu, the former prodigy who had lost his way professionally, but who marked his national team return with a fortune-turning moment Wednesday. His decisive, well-aimed pass to Donovan led to the U.S. breakthrough in a 1-0 semifinal win over stubborn Panama.

A few hours later, Mexico pressed and pressed but couldn't unlock similarly stubborn Honduras over 90 minutes. So El Tri needed 30 added minutes to finally see home a 2-0 win inside Houston's Reliant Stadium.

Aldo de Nigris supplied the game-winner, but it didn't take long afterward for the Mexican man of the moment to make his latest mark. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez again showed up near goal at just the right place and just the right time to tuck home his seventh of the tournament, the high mark by a long way.

As for the U.S. side, two shutouts in elimination matches have helped restore some sheen to Bradley's troops, who haven't been anything special in about a year. Saturday's outcome and performance will go a long way to determining just how everyone feels about the current group as World Cup qualifying nears. Grinding out results against Jamaica in the quarterfinals and Panama in the semis has allowed the U.S. to check the box on "getting the job done." However, they'll surely need more against a Mexican side that pummeled first-round opponents while the U.S. labored to escape group stage. Along the way Bradley's men flirted with disaster in a stunning 2-1 loss to Panama, a result that was really the nadir of a longer period of results that ranged from uninspired to plain old ugly.

Donovan appreciates the team response since. "Sometimes it's good to get a wake-up call," he said. "We've said all along that this tournament is a marathon. You can't get too caught up in one result or one performance. You have to keep getting better as the tournament goes on, and now we find ourselves in the final with a chance to win it."

Gold Cup honors and that coveted Confed Cup berth is target one, but the chance to stick it in the other's face is a begging bonus. Mutual respect has certainly grown between the two big kids in the CONCACAF neighborhood -- but the U.S.-Mexico acrimony has trended north in a parallel course. Since a loss in Mexico City in 1999, the United States holds a decided series edge. A distinct psychological edge has grown while the United States built a 10-4-2 mark over that time.

But those were all Mexican teams without Chicharito, the Manchester United sensation who just celebrated his 23rd birthday. A year ago he was just another promising talent from Mexico, plucked by legendary manager Alex Ferguson but still a long, long way from becoming a force at mighty Manchester United. Less than a year later he's the talk of José Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre's team, quickly assuming a place alongside historical giants of Mexican soccer, names like Rafael Marquez, Jorge Campos, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the peerless Hugo Sanchez.

The Mexican arrangement is fluid, so El Tri's shape sometimes looks like a 4-2-3-1 and sometimes a 4-4-2. U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra will have his hands full trying to organize his defense against that menacing swirl. Gio Dos Santos, Tottenham Hotspur's quick and tricky little attacker, likes to set up right of Chicharito, sometimes more like a winger and sometimes like a second striker. He will presumably test Lichaj's side early rather than facing Steve Cherundolo, the wise old U.S. hand at right fullback.

Mexico's back line has been rock solid, with Marquez on central patrol alongside Hector Moreno, a rising 23-year-old who just moved from Dutch side AZ Alkmaar to Espanyol in Spain's La Liga for a reported transfer price of about $6 million. The entire back line has a similar worldly presence as Mexico continues to eradicate a formerly worrisome trend, an extended period where El Tri talent struggled to adapt across the Atlantic.

Veteran left back Carlos Salcido, a veteran of two World Cups, established himself at PSV in Holland and called Craven Cottage home last year as Dempsey's teammate at Fulham. Efraín Juárez patrols the right, having just completed his first year with Scottish giant Celtic.

Gerardo Torrado, an enforcer who has kicked his share of U.S. shins over the year, screens the defense alongside Cruz Azul's Israel Castro.

U.S. goal output has been feeble at best since returning from South Africa. Now the highest ranking U.S. forward is hurt, as Jozy Altidore's hamstring injury has left the striking cupboard especially bare.

Juan Agudelo, who will be hard pressed to test Mexico's experienced back line, has taken Altidore's spot. Elsewhere, the U.S. coach must choose the best role for Donovan, the all-time U.S. leading scorer who started the last two games in an unfamiliar place, on the bench. Mexicans fans have found a grudging respect for the U.S. attacker, who struck in the most famous and important U.S. triumph over Mexico in a 2002 World Cup second round contest.

Now the teams meet once again in the tournament final that everyone expected all along -- even if the U.S. made hard work of getting here.

"When you come into these types of tournaments you grow along the way," coach 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."

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