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U.S., Mexico head Gold Cup field

Teams could end up playing for the title, if each can execute some crucial strategies.

June 07, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Seconds after the final whistle Tuesday night at cavernous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar nonchalantly bounced the ball off the back of Mexico striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco's head.

It was a message of sorts. Mexico's national soccer team had dominated the friendly game, but a goal on a breakaway less than two minutes from the end by Oscar Cardozo had given Paraguay that most rare of results -- a victory at intimidating Azteca, where Mexico almost never loses.

The hot-tempered Blanco, already steamed by the 1-0 defeat, was incensed and had to be physically restrained from confronting Villar.

What all this has to do with the Gold Cup, which started Wednesday, is this: If the United States team can get under Mexico's skin, rattle its nerves and erode its confidence, the defending and three-time champion Americans can win it all again, just as they did in 2005.

But if Mexico can keep its composure, Coach Hugo Sanchez's side has an excellent chance of winning the Gold Cup for the fifth time.

Yes, there are 10 other countries taking part in the 25-game tournament that determines the champion of soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean region, but the smart money has the U.S. and Mexico squaring off in the final in Chicago on June 24.

Both teams have called up their most experienced players, including their European-based stars, and both are intent on winning the tournament and thus earning a coveted place in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.

With the exception of 2000, when Canada made off with the trophy, the U.S. or Mexico has triumphed every time since the Gold Cup first was presented in 1991.

One or the other nation has played host to every tournament and one or the other has played in every final except the aberrant 2000 edition when Colombia, an invited guest, lost to the upstart Canadians in the rain at the Coliseum.

Invited guests are now a thing of the past. Only teams from CONCACAF's 38-member nations can take part.

The U.S. and Mexico are the recognized regional soccer powers, but not everyone is convinced it's a two-team race.

"There's always a sleeper, isn't there?" said Frank Yallop, who coached Canada in the 2005 Gold Cup before becoming the Galaxy's coach. "There are always things that pop up in those tournaments. They seem to be the two teams to beat, but you never know."

It is difficult, however, to see anyone stopping Coach Bob Bradley's U.S. team before the final. The U.S. opens against Guatemala tonight at the Home Depot Center, plays Trinidad and Tobago in Carson on Saturday afternoon and ends its first round against El Salvador on Tuesday night in Foxborough, Mass.

The U.S. warmed up with a 4-1 rout of China on Saturday, and forwards Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman are in peak form.

Nor is Sanchez's Mexico squad likely to be derailed by a first round in which it opens against Cuba on Friday night at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., play Honduras there Sunday and finishes against 2005 runner-up Panama in Houston on June 13.

Sanchez has given his team two warm-up games leading into the Gold Cup and the Copa America in Venezuela that follows immediately afterward. Before being upset by Paraguay -- a loss that left Sanchez with a 4-2 record as coach -- Mexico rolled over Iran, 4-0, Friday night.

In that game, Nery Castillo, the 22-year-old star-in-the-making who plays for Greek champion Olympiakos, made his long-awaited debut for Mexico, impressing Sanchez in the process.

"Each time he plays, there will be fewer people that doubt his ability, because there are very few players in the world like Nery," Sanchez said.

Sanchez has a variety of offensive weapons at his disposal.

Against Iran, Jared Borgetti extended his Mexican record by scoring his 41st goal for the national team. Other attackers on Mexico's Gold Cup roster include Francisco "Kikin" Fonseca, Omar Bravo, Adolfo "Bofo" Bautista, Andres Guardado and the Chicago Fire-bound Blanco.

The U.S. has not lost to Mexico on American soil since 1999 and defeated Mexico, 2-0, in Sanchez's debut as national team coach in Phoenix in March. It counters with goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Tim Howard, along with a solid defensive contingent.

But Landon Donovan says it is the U.S. offense that has to take the lead in the Gold Cup, which is the last time before qualifying begins for the 2010 World Cup that Bradley will have unrestricted access to all his players.

"My guess would be that we're going to put as many attacking players on the field as we can," Donovan said.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

--

GOLD CUP TONIGHT

United States vs. Guatemala, 6 p.m.;

El Salvador vs. Trinidad and Tobago, 8 p.m.

Site -- Home Depot Center.

TV -- FSC and Telefutura (Spanish).

Update -- U.S. Coach Bob Bradley is 4-0-1. Major League Soccer standout Carlos Ruiz leads Guatemala, which has won only two of 19 Gold Cup games. Trinidad is without its top players because of unpaid 2006 World Cup bonuses. El Salvador features longtime MLS star Ronald Cerritos.

Tickets -- Starting at $30. TicketMaster or (877) 342-5299 and (877) 244-8271.

-- Grahame L. Jones

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