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United States reaches for Gold Cup perfection in Sunday’s final against Panama

Jul 27, 2013, 5:00 PM EDT

El Salvador v United States - 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup Getty Images
  • U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann is suspended
  • The United States is perfect through five matches, with a splashy 19-4 goal difference
  • The United States has won 10 consecutive matches
  • Landon Donovan has been dominant, with 5 goals and 7 assists in the tournament
  • 4 p.m. ET on Fox and Univision

Most of the top nations in this year’s Gold Cup brought lesser versions for the regional competition, electing to give their front-line men some much deserved time off.

Panama treated the even differently, sending a primarily first-choice team to the United States, hopeful of success that might kick start a stalled drive for World Cup 2014. As such, the Central Americans strivers, also making a push to generally elevate their place in the region, pose a genuine threat to the U.S. reach for tournament perfection during Sunday’s final inside Chicago’s historic Soldier Field.

U.S. players and coaches keep telling everyone in pre-game media sessions that a tough test is ahead. In reality, that just hasn’t happened yet, as a team of mostly second choice men from the U.S. player pool have been more than enough, utterly shredding the field of competitors to this point. So much of that dominance is about Landon Donovan, who has cast off his previous estrangement from the national team spectacularly.

As evidenced by Donovan’s sizzling return, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann keeps pushing all the right personnel buttons. His team has navigated five matches perfectly, winners in five out of five with a splashy 19-4 goal difference. The 19 goals scored is easily a tournament high among the 12 teams.

So much of that Donovan (pictured), who is dominating the tournament like few ever have. Five goals and seven assists in five Gold Cup matches represent totals just this side of stunning, and he has immediately established an on-field rapport with U.S. striker Eddie Johnson, one that will keep the Panamanian back line busy Sunday.

(MORE: Donovan is streaking in the Gold Cup)

Donovan has played in more Gold Cup matches than anyone in history, so he surely knows the terrain and the historical context. Even he has been surprised by how the United States has flattened the field, not really stretched a bit, not even in the quarterfinals or semifinals.

“I guess I would have expected it to be a little more diff up to this point,” he said.
“But we know Sunday is going to look different than any of these [previous Gold Cup] games have, we are aware of that. But I think it’s a testament to this group and how we’ve done. We haven’t played the same lineup at all. One guy goes out, the next guy comes in and does a great job. It’s just been like that. We’re circulating [personnel], guys are confident, they are eager and excited. Everybody is playing really well and it’s been fun to be a part of it.”

Clobbering the field thusly is new, but success in the tournament isn’t. The United States won the semi-annual tournament in 1991, 2002, 2005 and 2007 and had four runner-up finishes around those titles.

There are a couple of potential hitches in all these Gold Cup good tidings. One is the suspension of manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who was dismissed from Wednesday’s semifinal win over Honduras for slamming the ball to the field. He was frustrated over a perceived lack of protection for U.S. players.

Top assistants Martin Vasquez and Andi Hertzog will pull sideline duty, presumably while in some kind of communication from Klinsmann.

There is also the Blas Perez factor. Perez isn’t just the top man for the small Central American nation, he has also established himself as one of the region’s premier goal-scorers. Physical, skillful and full of great instinct near goal, he also scores regularly at club level for FC Dallas.

Perez, scorer of Panama’s opener in Wednesday’s semifinal 2-1 win over Mexico – a surprise only to those who had not watched this determined bunch previously in the tournament – wasn’t around in June when the United States had a relatively easy time with Panama in a final stage World Cup qualifying match in Seattle. Perez was out with a stomach illness.

Along with young striker Gabriel Torres (who was just signed by Colorado of MLS), they will provide the toughest test yet for a U.S. back line without too much to do so far. There have been occasional vulnerable spots revealed: last week, Salvadoran forward Rodolfo Zelaya reminded us that DaMarcus Beasley isn’t a natural defender, and generally gave the United States something to worry about. Also add to the “worry list” defending on set pieces, which has been dodgy.

(MORE: Klinsmann has important center back choice to make)

Another potential obstacle is all the Gold Cup miles Donovan has already logged. Until the program’s all-time goals and assists leader was subbed off 22 minutes before the end on Wednesday, having already supplied two goals and an assist in the comfortable 3-1 win over Honduras, he had played every minute in the tournament. Getting just that little break near the end Wednesday will help, Donovan said, also complimenting the job U.S. Soccer’s training and fitness staff have done while managing the competition’s brutal pacing. This will be the United States’ sixth match in 20 days, with travel between each stop.

“Generally, at this point in my career, after about 60 minutes, you really start to break down, your body starts breaking down physically,” Donovan said. “So, even having a rest for about 20 minutes [Wednesday] will help a lot for Sunday.”

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