Jeff Bradley: US-Panama might lack flair, but sure to bring the fire in Gold Cup final
No, it's not Mexico-USA.
So, no two ways about it, something will be missing on Sunday when the US take on Panama in the Gold Cup final at Soldier Field (4 pm ET; Fox/UniMas, Live Chat on MLSsoccer.com).
The atmosphere won't be the same without the thousands of Mexican fans who'd have certainly packed the house. The overall buzz surrounding the game will not be the same as it would have been were the US and El Tri playing a fourth straight Gold Cup final.
But when you move past those off-the-field things and get down to what could – and should – happen on the field, this has all the makings of a classic championship game.
Because in the US and Panama you have the two teams who seemed most determined to win this title. And you also have a pair of national teams who've had some good battles in the past in this tournament, including a tightly contested final in 2005, won by the US on penalties after 120 minutes of scoreless soccer on hot afternoon at Giants Stadium.
In 12 meetings in the past, Panama have only beaten the US once, in the 2011 Gold Cup's opening round (Clint Dempsey, at right). It's a game that's remembered for Tim Ream's swing-and-a-miss in the box that resulted in a penalty for Panama, and for Chris Wondolowski's seemingly impossible miss from inside the six as the US were pressing hard for an equalizer.
The US exacted some revenge for that defeat, beating Panama 1-0 in the semifinal. That's a game remembered for the work of substitutes Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan, who helped created the game's lone goal, scored by Clint Dempsey in the 76th minute. That was the fourth consecutive time the US have eliminated Panama from the Gold Cup.
What's become rare in this series is a US-Panama game that's not a white-knuckle affair. In fact, the most recent US victory, a pretty comprehensive 2-0 victory in a World Cup qualifier last month, is the only time in the last six meetings between the two countries that the game was not decided by one goal. You've got to go way back to qualifying for the 2006 to find any really lopsided scorelines.
Bruce Arena's Germany-bound squad won by 6-0 and 3-0 scorelines in their two meetings with Panama in the walk-up to the World Cup. Those games came after Panama put a good scare into the US in the first phase of qualifying, when the US needed a last-gasp goal by Cobi Jones to escape with a 1-1 tie.
Back in those days, the Dely Valdés brothers, Jorge and Julio, were playing for Panama, now they're coaching. Their influence on the team's ability to play a compact and effective style has been profound. Nothing comes easy against this Panama team.
The US victory in qualifying came against a Panamanian team that was missing some of its best players, including FC Dallas star Blas Pérez (right). This time, Panama get a crack at a US team that doesn't feature Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, but has still run roughshod through this tournament, with the exception of the Costa Rica game.
It has been incredible to watch the way this US team has attacked, at times with long spells of possession and tight combination play and, at other times with direct play that's showcased the speed of rejuvenated players like Donovan and Eddie Johnson. There have been scoring chances galore and the US finishing has been superb.
It has been mostly a junior varsity tournament, this year's Gold Cup, as it comes in a World Cup qualifying year and most of the teams have fielded less than their best.
But for the US and Panama, it's looked like more than a development showcase from the outset. The US look like a team that hungry to win something for the first time in six years and Panama like a team that's trying to win something for the first time ever. Simply put, these are the two national teams who want this Gold Cup the most.
It's Panama-USA. And maybe for the first time, that’s more than enough.