The Gold Cup final is exactly what everyone expected: The USA vs. Mexico, the two giants in CONCACAF, will face off for continental bragging rights for the third straight tournament. While the teams in the final match were predictable, it can safely be said that their paths there were anything but.
The U.S. fell to its first-ever group stage loss in the tournament, a result that left Bob Bradley in the bizarre position of having to beat Guadaloupe (and likely Jamaica, too) to keep his job. American success in the tournament has involved some very unexpected moves as well. Bob Bradley's mid-tournament tactical shift to a 4231 was out of character. If someone told you before the tournament that they expected Landon Donovan to find himself on the bench behind Alejandro Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan, you'd want to make sure they weren't driving anywhere soon. On top of that, we saw Freddy Adu - yes, that Freddy Adu - clamber off the bench to play a key role in the US goal against Panama in the semifinal and provide the first significant evidence in a long time that his career may finally be on the upward trajectory. It has been a bizarre tournament for the US, to say the least.
Mexico, meanwhile, thrashed their group foes while contending with a doping scandal - complete with a comical explanation that turned out to be the truth - that robbed them of five players (including starting goalkeeper Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa and first-choice center back Francisco Javier "Maza" Rodriguez). El Tri's imperious group stage form has not quite carried over into the knockout round, however, as they fell behind against a limited Guatemala side before scraping out a 2-1 win and then had to go to overtime to beat Honduras 2-0.
So what of this Mexico team? How do they play? Where can the Yanks gain an advantage? Read on:
Mexico will almost certainly stick to the same set of players that got them here, though they have one injury to consider:
Left winger Andres Guardado is that injury concern; as of this writing, the rumor is that he'll be a game-time decision. While I expect Guardado to play, it's good to be aware of Mexico's back-up plan. That scenario would see Giovani Dos Santos shift to the open left midfield slot and be replaced up front by Aldo De Nigris, which would give Mexico a very conventional 442 approach rather than their preferred 442 that can quickly become a 4231 when Dos Santos drops off and the wingers push up.
All other positions seem set in stone, as head coach Jose Manuel de la Torre (a.k.a. "Chepo") has started no fewer than eight players in every game of the tournament. Two other starters - Rafael Marquez and Alfredo Talavera - have started every game since the clenbuterol scandal. That may be the reason why Mexico's results have gone from reading 5-0 and 4-1 to 2-1 and a 2-0 win that went to overtime: This core group of players has had to play a staggering volume of minutes, often in the heat of the day, traveling to all corners of the US to boot. Chepo's lack of flexibility may end up being the Americans' number one asset when all is said and done.
So they're tired, but who exactly are they? We'll start with Talavera, the goalkeeper who stepped in after Memo Ochoa was removed from the squad during Tainted Meat-Gate. Talavera is the solid, reliable, and usually calm #1 for Toluca, the club de la Torre used to coach before he got the Mexico job. However, Talavera came into the Gold Cup with just one cap to his name; Ochoa's stranglehold on the position is roughly equal to that of Tim Howard for the U.S., so no one else gets a chance for El Tri. I doubt Talavera will make the kind of big mistake that costs Mexico in this game, but I also wonder if he has the kind of ability to produce match-winning saves. Chepo can be a bit cautious, and I think his choice of Talavera over the more agile but slightly more volatile Jonathan Orozco is evidence of that.
Across the back, there is a bit more familiarity for US fans. Old foe Rafa Marquez stepped into the fray when Rodriguez was named in the doping scandal, and will captain the team. Marquez has a tremendous ability to pass out of the back - D.C. United fans know that all too well - but he has some temper issues when it comes to playing the United States. More importantly, he's also getting a bit soft in his 1v1 defending; if he can be isolated, the U.S. may have an avenue towards success going forward. Marquez's partner is Hector Moreno, a very promising 23 year old currently playing in the Netherlands with AZ. Moreno is the athlete of the duo, but he's also a sound decision-maker and has good technique as well.
The outside backs typically get forward for Mexico. Carlos Salcido (teammates with Clint Dempsey at Fulham) has been in the Mexico line-up for what seems like forever; think of him as the left-sided Mexican equivalent of Steve Cherundolo. On the right is Efrain Juarez of Celtic. Juarez often played right midfield in his days with Pumas UNAM (they often play 343), so you can expect Juarez to be the more attacking of the pair. That said, Juarez is also prone to fouling and the occasional poor decision. While Salcido is as sturdy as they come, Juarez could be someone the US targets (provided, of course, that he is forced to defend from time to time).
The central midfield features two salty veterans in 32 year old Gerardo Torrado and 30 year old Israel Castro. Torrado needs little introduction to longtime US fans; he is the kind of player you always hate to play against. While Torrado is known for being combative, he's also extremely clever; while he is frequently yellow-carded, he usually avoids further trouble while still remaining effective. Castro is the less noticeable of the pair, and not just because he kicks fewer people. While neither is really a box-to-box type, Torrado will join the attack more often. However, anyone that follows the US will probably recall that Castro has some attacking ability.
Down the wings, both Guardado and Pablo Barrera possess tons of speed. Neither player excels as a crosser of the ball, though Barrera's year at West Ham seems to have upped his accuracy (Mexico scored both of its goals against Honduras from corner kicks taken by Barrera). Instead, they both prefer to drive behind the back four, get close to the end line, and then cut in or play low crosses into the area. Neither likely outside back for the US - Cherundolo on the right, Eric Lichaj on the left - has the speed to cope in a straight-up foot race, so consistently anticipating their movements will be key.
If Guardado is out, Dos Santos will go about the job with a different approach. "Gio" is more of a tricky playmaker-type than a true winger, so he'll likely look to pinch in centrally and play from the left rather than on the left. Even if Guardado is fit to start, we may see Dos Santos shift into this role at some point anyway. However, if Dos Santos does spend the whole game as the withdrawn striker, look for him to drift slightly towards the right; he seems to prefer attacking the gap between the left back and the left-center back when he isn't pinned to a wing.
The final starter is also the most worrisome. Javier Hernandez, much better known as Chicharito, has 7 goals in the tournament and is coming off of a sensational season with Manchester United. Unfortunately for the US, Chicharito has scored on better defenses than ours, and that's in spite of being physically overmatched just about every time he steps onto the field.
So how does he do it? Chicharito is a master of movement off the ball; he just has a higher ability to perceive where space is going to open up, and he finds that space consistently. He is also extraordinarily elusive; marking him is a lot like marking a ghost. Despite his size, Hernandez scores a shocking number of goals on headers, and it's all because of his ability to somehow evade his marker right in front of goal. The bad news for the US is that Chicharito isn't just a good player for Mexico, like their strikers of the past (Luis Hernandez and Jared Borgetti, for example). Today, we're up against a striker who can actually be called "world class" in the old-school meaning of the term, rather than its new school definition of "pretty good." Chicharito has the potential to be the best Mexican player of all time, and unlike his teammates, he never looked tired against Honduras.
For the U.S. to win, we're going to have to make service into Chicharito as difficult as possible, while also doing everything to avoid turnovers in midfield. If Mexico is starved of possession, they tend to react poorly. If the US is giving the ball away in dangerous spots, it will likely be a long night. Going forward, it will be important to force Juarez to have to defend 1v1 against Dempsey or Donovan, and to force Marquez into uncomfortable spots as well. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the US has to win the mental battle; Mexico can be a phenomenal team when they are confident, but they're also very fragile, and no team gets them to hit the self-destruct button more often than the Stars and Stripes.