El Tri‘s Gold Cup campaign has so far provided its set of fresh questions as to how the team would perform without its biggest stars. Although Gerardo Martino’s side have repeatedly done well in creating chances, they often only had enough of a killer instinct to merely escape their opponents in the knockout phases of the tournament. First, it was Costa Rica in the quarterfinals and then it was Haiti in the semifinals on Tuesday. Now, they face off against the United States at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sunday for the big prize–their eleventh CONCACAF continental title.
Despite the supposed rivalry between the two North American nations, El Tri has never fallen to the Stars and Stripes in a Gold Cup or CONCACAF Championship final. And in 2011, the last time the two sides met in a Gold Cup title match, El Tri staged a comeback from a two goal deficit to defeat the Stars and Sripes 4-2 at the Rose Bowl.
Of the selection who last took a Gold Cup title off the United States, only three players from that day are with this El Tri selection–goalkeepers Guillermo Ochoa and Jonathan Orozco, and midfielder Andres Guardado. Those three are among the players who the others might turn to in order to deal with a side that, despite not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, could actually hurt El Tri. In particular, the focus for El Tri in training has to be how to deal with the Stars and Stripes‘ two young protagonists–Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic and Schalke 04 central midfielder Weston McKennie.
Both players can control and dribble against opposition in tight spaces to make chances, and both can maneuver themselves and the ball (and others) out of pressure and transform what may have been an ideal turnover situation for El Tri on the press into situation where either the goalkeeper or the defense has to make an emergency maneuver to prevent them from scoring.
But the United States has also appeared to be chiefly dependent on Pulisic and McKennie to make their chances and score their goals in this Gold Cup. Although others, like veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, Djordje Mihailovic, Tyler Boyd, and Reggie Cannon have tried to offer some help, they have often been prone to mistakes in their control and finishing enough that their opponents had felt that they had a chance. And at many points, including in the Stars and Stripes‘ semifinal clash against Jamaica, their opponents became the protagonists forced the United States to preserve their advantage via low blocks and the rest of their defensive phase of their game.
It is also in their defensive phases of the game that the United States has shown its weaknesses. Former Atlas and Pachuca defender Omar Gonzalez might serve as a key focal point for how El Tri decides to press and take away space. Gonzalez might provide height, but his ball control and situational recognition, two traits that are often more important in defending than height, has often made him the player off of which teams could create and finish goal-scoring chances. Gyasi Zardes’ and Jozy Altidore’s tendencies for heavy first touches should provide other opportunities for Edson Alvarez, Luis Rodriguez, Andres Guardado, and others to press, maintain possession, and create the danger required to not just force United States goalkeeper Zack Steffen to keep them in the match, but hurt the Stars and Stripes where it matters–on the scoreboard.
Both teams, the Stars and Stripes and El Tri, are also obligated to win on Sunday, despite Carlos Salcedo’s insistence that there are no real giants in CONCACAF. Even the individualized instruction Gerardo Martino and his coaching staff have been providing players, including Edson Alvarez, to improve their contributions to El Tri‘s collective goals may not matter if El Tri fall short.
The match kicks off from Soldier Field on Sunday, July 7 at 9:00 PM Eastern DST (UTC -4) and can be seen in the United States on FS1 and Univision, and streamed on CONCACAF Go and all providers with the two networks.