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Gold Cup: Semifinal drama sets up dream US-Mexico finale

HOUSTON — There were moments when it looked as though it wouldn't happen, but we’re right where we thought we’d be: After a hard-fought night of semifinal action at Reliant Stadium, the much-anticipated—and often predicted—finale to the 2011 Gold Cup between the US and Mexico is now a reality.

As expected, story lines abound ahead Saturday's final in Pasadena, Calif. (9 pm ET, FOX Soccer).

First, there’s the history between the teams. This will be the third straight Gold Cup final between the two teams. The US won, 2-1, in 2007 while Mexico prevailed in 2009 by the lopsided score line of 5-0.

“I grew up watching the US play Mexico all the time, so I’d like to play in a game,” US fullback Eric Lichaj said after Wednesday's victory over Panama. “That’s definitely a final I want to be a part of.”

Another point of intrigue is the support El Tri receive whenever they play in the United States. Evidenced by the sea of green shirts at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday night, the US will probably feel like "the away team” on Saturday despite playing in their home nation — especially given the large Mexican/Mexican-American population in the Los Angeles area. There will be minimal home-field advantage for the US.

“Being in America, we don’t always have more fans than the other team,” Dempsey said. “I think it makes us stronger as a team. Hopefully, one day, it will be us who have a stadium where we have more fans than the other team, but it’s not something that bothers us.

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“We go out and play like any other team and we have confidence in ourselves to get the job done, and the goal for this tournament is to win it.”

And though the support in the stands could be one-sided, the play on the field is not expected to be. Mexico have played at a high level throughout the Gold Cup and were considered favorites early on in the tournament, but the US might feel they’re peaking at the right time.

For Texas native Dempsey, it’s the team’s track record and proverbial “closing of the gap” between the two nations that’s earning respect from fans on both sides of the border. In fact, many Mexico fans watching the US-Panama game prior to Mexico's 2-0 defeat of Honduras gave the Yanks a standing ovation following their win.

“I think it’s a sign of respect that the game’s developing more and more in the United States, and we playing a better brand of football,” Dempsey said.

Of course, those warm feelings won’t be present in Saturday’s final. But one thing’s for sure: It'll be a stage rife with intrigue that only a final between Mexico and the US can produce.

Darrell Lovell is a Houston-based beat writer for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on twitter at @Dynamoexaminer.