photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HOUSTON, Texas – As Honduras applied most of the pressure towards the end of regulation of its semifinal match against Mexico on Wednesday night, there was a growing sense that maybe the U.S. men's national team would not face its most bitter rival in the Gold Cup final afterall.
That belief was quickly crushed with an improved Mexican effort in overtime, an effort that saw El Tri score two goals to set up a United States-Mexico final for the third consecutive Gold Cup.
"Honestly, I think it's going to be a difficult final against a tough opponent that we know has quality players," said Giovanni Dos Santos. "We're going to have dig in deep and do our best to win the final."
Mexico may have won the last Gold Cup final, in 2009, with a 5-0 dismantling of the United States. But that result came against a U.S. team comprised of mostly reserves.
The last time the CONCACAF heavyweights squared off in a final with both being at full strength was in 2007, when the United States needed a come from behind effort, and a wonder strike, to defeat Mexico, 2-1.
""What happened in that moment, happened then," said Andres Guardado, who scored the opener in the 2007 final at Soldier Field. "But now it's a new tournament with a new team. We have more confidence now. We've had a great Gold Cup and we need to finish it off with a win in the championship match."
Guardado, a key figure in Mexico's attack, also admitted he could potentially miss the final with an ankle injury suffered in the 2-0 win against Honduras on Saturday.
"I'm a little worried because it's the final and we all want to be there," said Guardado. "It's the most important game to date, and I don't want to miss it. The doctor has given me reasons to be optimistic and told me that I might be able to play without a problem, and I hope that's the case."
Whether Guardado is there or not, Mexico will enter the final under somewhat different circumstances than their American counterparts. The Mexicans began the tournament in dominating fashion, but have looked beatable in their last two matches.
The U.S. team has done the exact opposite. After starting out slowly with less-than-convincing performances, including a first ever loss in the group stage of the tournament, the United States has rebounded. The Americans have continuously gotten better with each passing game and appear to peaking at just the right moment.
"We're playing a lot better and sometimes it's good to get a wake-up call," said Landon Donovan, who scored off a penalty kick in the 2007 final. "We've said all along that this tournament is a marathon and we can't get too caught up in one result, one performance. You've got to keep getting better as the tournament goes on and now we find ourselves in the final with a chance to win it."
Following their respective games on Wednesday night at Reliant Stadium, both teams shared a mutual respect for one another. Veteran players spoke about how the contests are always tight and how their opponent always provides a stiff test. They also spoke about how it's always special when the two teams meet.
But the awareness of how special and big the final is didn't just come from the guys who have been there before.
"They're a tough opponent, and they're in the finals for a reason," said Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, who has yet to play against the United States.
"Yeah because I've grown up watching USA play Mexico all the time," said Eric Lichaj. "I would like to be playing in that final game against Mexico if I could."