Saturday June 25th, 2011

PASADENA, Calif. -- Game day. United States-Mexico. Gold Cup final. A berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup on the line. What more needs to be said?

Not much, really. But here are five things on my mind heading into the most important game for both teams in the next 12 months (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, Univisión):

Who will have the mental edge? It's no secret that Mexico is the clear favorite and has played better than the U.S. has during this tournament (see Steve Davis' game preview). But as any Mexican supporter will tell you, they're always concerned that the Mexican players will have some sort of mental block when it comes to facing the U.S. (especially on U.S. soil). The Mexican players deal with far more pressure from their media and fans than the U.S. does, and at times El Tri has crumbled as a result.

I unwittingly caused a minor international incident at Friday's press conference when I asked Mexican coach Chepo de la Torre about "the mentality issue." I tried to be respectful about it, but I know it's a sensitive topic, and he didn't take kindly to it, asking if I thought Mexico had been mentally weak in the past. "At times, yeah," I replied. All due respect to him and to Mexico, but the guy looked nervous and defensive.

The U.S. may not play better soccer than Mexico, but in these rivalry games the Yanks have shown more cojones than Mexico in recent years. Could it happen again in the final? "It's how you handle the pressure of the situation," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard told me Friday. "It's difficult when you step on the field. It's 100,000 people. You can pass the ball on the field today [Friday] but it's how you manage it tomorrow [Saturday]. We've had games where we haven't played well and won because we're resilient."

Does Landon Donovan start? Almost certainly. The seven-time U.S. player of the year hasn't started the past two games, but as someone close to the team told me here, "There's no way Landon doesn't start" against Mexico. Several reasons: 1) After a good game against Jamaica, Sacha Kljestan struggled in the semifinal and came off for Donovan after 45 minutes. Hard to see Kljestan getting the nod today. 2) Donovan is a Mexico-killer who never lacks for motivation against El Tri. 3) This game seems tailor-made for Donovan, who thrives on speed on the counterattack. Mexico will have more possession, but the U.S. seems more comfortable allowing that and striking on the counter.

Will Andrés Guardado and Carlos Salcido play? Guardado is one of Mexico's biggest threats on the left wing, but he injured an ankle on Wednesday and will be a game-time decision according to De La Torre. Based on the game's high stakes and what Guardado told us on Friday, I expect he'll grit it out and play. "It's good," he said. "I tried it a little in training. It's a bit uncomfortable, but I should be OK." Left back Salcido has a heel injury and may be a bit more of a question mark, but this is the type of game where you get a pregame injection if you have to in order to get on the field.

How much will the U.S. press Mexico as it initiates its attack? This has been a grueling tournament, and yet the U.S. players tend to have the fitness advantage most of the time. Unlike in the altitude and smog of the Azteca, the Yanks may well press Mexico's central midfielders (Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro) earlier in their attack and try to prevent them from spraying easy balls out to the flanks, where Guardado, Pablo Barrera and Giovani Dos Santos are especially dangerous. Keep an eye on Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and even Donovan (or whoever plays as the U.S.'s attacking central mid) to see how much energy they expend on the press.

Mexico's big goal margin in the group stage is more dubious now. Many observers pointed to Mexico's 14-1 goal margin in the first round as evidence that the team was playing at the top of its game. But two of Mexico's first-round games (a 5-0 win against El Salvador and a 5-0 win against Cuba) have come under heavy suspicion that members of the losing teams may have been involved in irregularities involving the Asian gambling market. A report on the website of Der Spiegel revealed that FIFA and Interpol were investigating irregularities in at least three Gold Cup games, and a leading betting-industry insider told me he was highly suspicious of every Gold Cup game involving Cuba and Grenada and also had questions about El Salvador's 5-0 loss to Mexico.

The games involving Grenada (which lost three games by a combined score of 15-1) and Cuba (16-1 goal differential), he said, stood out in particular: "It was the sort of thing where we sat around and said, 'Yeah, this looks like it's a 99 percent chance that it's bent.'"

The betting-industry insider explained that the irregularities were in what is called "in-running betting" (in which bets are placed during a game on what will happen from that point on) as opposed to "dead-ball betting" that takes place before the game. In-game betting on world soccer is dominated by the Asian market, which he said was producing belief-defying odds swings during several Gold Cup games. The suspicious games weren't just the result of Cuba and Grenada being poor teams, he said.

"With Cuba and Grenada, yes, they're terrible, but there's lots of other teams that are also terrible, and generally those of us in soccer betting are used to pricing out these sorts of games, where you have very good against very bad," he said. "We see them a lot in the World Cup and European Championship qualifying. What I would say is that the odds movements for in-running betting [in Cuba and Grenada's Gold Cup games] were just incredibly, incredibly unusual and extreme. We're talking about five to 10 times what you would typically see. And these extreme odds movements would be subsequently vindicated by what was happening on the field."

The industry expert provided several graphs depicting the differences in the Asian market swings in the suspicious Gold Cup games, as well as those in Gold Cup games that weren't suspicious to him (including the U.S.'s 2-1 loss to Panama). I'll write more about this story next week and include those graphs to show the stark differences.

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