By Michael Lewis
CHICAGO -- In what should be a hotly contested CONCACAF Gold Cup final Sunday, Panama and the United States are expected to leave it all on Soldier Field.
For CONCACAF official notes about this game, click here.
Prior to the curtain closer, opposing players and coaches lavished great praise on each other as they prepare for the game that will decide the next CONCACAF champion and one of the two playoff berths for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. The winner will meet the 2015 Gold Cup winner for the right to represent the confederation in Russia.
”We all know it's going to be a difficult game,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said at a pre-game press conference at the stadium Saturday. “Panama is there for a reason. They beat Mexico twice. So that's enough said with those words.”
About an hour and a half later, it was Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes’ turn.
“We are conscious of what we are facing,” he said. “We have been able to review everything that the U.S. has done so far. No doubt in my mind they're the best team in the tournament. We have to maintain our defensive strengths. We have been the best defensively. We know it's going to be complicated, but the U.S. is the favorite, given how they got here.”
Even the players got into the act.
“It's a great rival,” said Panama midfielder Gabriel Gomez, one of the architects of La Marea Roja’s 2-1 upset of the U.S. at the 2011 Gold Cup. “They have great players. They are one of the best teams in the cup. Truthfully, they are favorites to win the cup. We know that the game will be very difficult.”
U.S. midfielder-forward Landon Donovan gave some plaudits to his foes as well.
“Any time you beat Mexico twice within a span of three weeks you've done something right,” he said. “In my opinion, they have been the best team in the tournament along with us and they deserve to be there.”
Come to think of it, both teams definitely deserve the superlatives because they are both bringing undefeated records into the final.
On one end of the Soldier Field pitch stands the United States, which has recorded five consecutive Cup wins while outscoring its foes, 19-4. The Americans boast a pair of five-goal scorers – a rarity by one team in the Gold Cup – Landon Donovan (tournament-high seven assists) and Chris Wondolowski.
On the other end of the field, stands Panama which has a 4-1-0 record behind five goals from Gabriel Torres. Defensively, it is stingiest team of the competition, surrendering only three goals and registering two shutouts. The Panamanians are trying to become the first Central American side to win a Gold Cup.
These teams have met before in a Gold Cup final, squaring off in the 2005 championship match at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Americans lifted the trophy for a third time, overcoming the Canaleros 3-1 on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw.
“I'm not sure its revenge,” Dely Valdes commented. “But for those of us who are here, for all of us, not just my brother. For all of us, including our country who is waiting for the game. It's a great opportunity to be in a final. It's not usual for anyone to be in one. So it's definitely an opportunity for us to change history.”
Some six years later, Panama handed the U.S. its first group-stage defeat in the competition’s history, a 2-1 result in Tampa. Overall, the U.S. has a 7-1-1 record at home against the Central Americans.
The Americans enter the final looking for a fifth Gold Cup crown (Mexico holds the record with six), a fact that Donovan does not take for granted.
“This is an opportunity that you may never have again,” the LA Galaxy star noted. “That is the point we're going to make to everybody. You're not guaranteed to ever be here again. And that’s reality. Some people are more fortunate. Some people go their whole career and never play in the final.
“Our confidence right now could not be any higher. I think we're very capable, but we're playing a very good team. So there's no room for error.”