It had to end here, didn't it?
Twelve teams started the tournament, but the last two standing are the only ones who make sense to finish it. It’s the United States and Mexico, CONCACAF's two best teams, playing in the Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl for regional bragging rights and a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup.
The road wasn't easy, however, as both the Americans and El Tri had their struggles. While Mexico waltzed through the group stage without conceding a goal and scoring 14 of their own, the Stars and Stripes lost to Panama before eking out a victory over Guadeloupe to ensure their qualification for the quarterfinal round.
In the elimination stage, Mexico returned to earth a bit — needing extra time to beat Honduras in the semifinal — while the US dominated Jamaica before dispatching Panama in a hard-fought affair.
Mexico will be the favorite on Saturday, and have the crowd behind them as well, but the US have prevailed in this role before. At the very least, this is the best and biggest soccer gets in North America. And there’s no better way to end the Gold Cup.
It wasn't always pretty, but the Red, White, and Blue advanced to their fourth straight Gold Cup final. They were blown out in 2009 but won the game that mattered in 2007, thanks to Benny Feilhaber's magical strike. (The US are 1-3 in Gold Cup finals against Mexico.)
Now Bob Bradley's side find themselves with a chance to re-establish dominance. The coach continues to make the right decisions, especially with his substitutions. That pass that Freddy Adu made to spark the goal against Panama, for example? There might not be another person on the US roster who completes it.
And then there was the most difficult choice: to sit Landon Donovan against Jamaica and Panama. It was the correct call, but it's time to give him back his traditional place on the field at the opening whistle.
Against Mexico, Bradley can't afford to miss with the starting lineup. Luckily for him, Sacha Klejstan played himself out of the first team on Wednesday and Jozy Altidore will miss the match with a hamstring injury. That leaves room for Donovan to return and for another shot with Alejandro Bedoya, who's energy has been the key to the US turnaround.
The back line won't change, with Eric Lichaj holding down the left and Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson trying to check Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, the tournament's leading scorer.
What the Americans really need is a goal. The chances will come; they have in every game, and they will continue to arrive despite Mexico's skill. But they need to finish. Here's looking at you, Juan Agudelo. The header you put off the crossbar against Panama? You have to bury that. Same for any opportunities that fall to Bedoya. It's probably going to take two goals to win this thing, but they can only get one at a time.
El Tri have been the class of the Gold Cup, playing attacking, exciting soccer in the group stage and continuing through the knockout round even as their form dipped. The five-time Gold Cup champions are led offensively by "Chicharito" and super-sub Aldo de Nigris, who should get a start in the likely absence of Andrés Guardado (a revelation in the first five games). If he does miss the match, it's a big blow for Mexico.
Manager José Manuel de la Torre should have everyone else at his disposal, including Dempsey's Fulham teammate Carlos Salcido. He has stayed pretty consistent with his line up throughout the tournament and shouldn't change much against the US. Chicharito's movement will trouble the American back line. If they don't communicate well, he will find spaces. Well, he'll find spaces anyway, but at least they can close him out quickly.
Rafa Márquez will man the Mexican defense as he's done so many times before. In a way, that's an advantage for the US. They know they have beaten him before; they know they can do it again.
Key US Player: Landon Donovan
Clint Dempsey has overtaken the LA Galaxy star as the country's best player, but Donovan could still be the most valuable. He's shown the ability to rise to the occasion, and there are few bigger than Saturday's match.
Key Mexico Player: Gerardo Torrado
This match will be won in the midfield, with Mexico controlling the majority of the possession and the US looking to pressure and capitalize on a mistake. If Torrado chokes, the Americans can take advantage.
Projected Starting US Linep
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson, Eric Lichaj, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Juan Agudelo
Projected Starting Mexico Lineup
Alfredo Talavera; Carlos Salcido, Rafa Márquez, Héctor Moreno, Gerardo Torrado, Israel Castro, Pablo Barrera, Efraín Juárez, Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernández, Aldo de Nigris