PASADENA, Calif. — The senior members of the US national team have seen more big games than they can count.
They’ve staged stunning victories, like ones against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup, or against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. They’ve seen the other side of the coin in savage defeats, like ones to the Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup or even to those same Spaniards in a friendly earlier this month.
But there’s nothing like facing off against their archrivals, they say, no matter the stakes. And Saturday’s Gold Cup final against goal-happy Mexico (8:30 pm ET, FOX Soccer, LIVE CHAT) will be one of the biggest in their careers.
“I love it,” Landon Donovan said Friday of another high-importance date with their archrivals. “I love these games. As a competitor, these are the games you want to play in.”
Mexico come into the match as the scoring dynamo at this Gold Cup, with 18 goals over five matches. The US, meanwhile, have been stout defensively, allowing only two goals through five games. That will make for what goalkeeper Tim Howard calls “an interesting chess match.”
“Both teams will be tight, but as the game goes, it’ll loosen up,” he said. “But it’s going to be a hell of an afternoon, man, and we’re looking forward to it.”
The feverish 90,000-strong crowd at the Rose Bowl will be largely pro-Mexico, as is to be expected from a big game in the Los Angeles area. That will make for a tough atmosphere for the US, who are somewhat used to being the virtual road team in their own backyard. But to Howard, it’s all part of the pressure of playing in a big game.
“When you walk out there, it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s difficult and there’s a lot of pressure ... for both teams. [It’s] how you perform under that pressure. It’s not how you pass the ball. They can shoot, we can shoot — those things come naturally. It’s how we can handle the pressure.”
This will be the first matchup between CONCACAF’s biggest rivals in nearly two years, when Mexico rallied to defeat the US 2-1 in World Cup qualifying in August of 2009 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Donovan has become Public Enemy No. 1 for his big performances against El Tri and has learned to save up his best for matchups between the two.
Still, the LA-area native says, Saturday’s match seems to have a little added importance to it. He’s been besieged by friends and relatives for tickets and says the awareness of this matchup in particular has taken on a life of its own.
“[The matchup in] this Gold Cup, for some reason, has felt more special than in years past,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the coverage, if it’s that it’s just grown over time, but it feels a lot more special. When you see the number of people that attended the games, the number of people that are just aware of it — it’s going to be a real special event tomorrow.”
Michael Bradley, meanwhile, will be facing Mexico in a final for the first time — he was part of the 2007 Gold Cup-winning squad but missed the final with a red-card suspension. And he is more than up to the occasion for his first shot at El Tri with a cup on the line.
“We’ll be ready to go,” the midfielder said. “It’s a big occasion. We have the confidence that when it comes down to it, we have guys who can make a play and who can make a difference. Our ability to fight for each other and stick together as a team, that’ll pull us through the rest.”