OK, so Sunday’s Gold Cup final between the United States and Panama hasn’t created quite the buzz it would have had it been the U.S. team against Mexico — in Chicago’s Soldier Field, no less, where surely tens of thousands of Mexicans had purchased tickets anticipating El Tri would reach the championship match.
The biggest pregame headline is that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann won’t be on the sideline. He was suspended one game following his ejection in the 87th minute of the 3-1 semifinal win over Honduras on Wednesday. Klinsmann was dismissed by the CONCACAF Disciplinary Committee “for showing dissent towards the referee by throwing the ball in a violent manner.”
So, he’ll have to watch on TV as his team and Panama — the two best teams in this tournament — battle for the title. Mexico is in a surprising funk and lost twice by scores of 2-1 in the opener and semifinal to upstart Panama.
The United States, meanwhile, is in the midst of an unprecedented 10-game win streak and rolling over opponents by a combined score of 19-4 in this Gold Cup. Those winning margins are typically reserved for the U.S. women’s team.
Klinsmann, after some early struggles, has this team creating a lot of scoring chances, finishing goals like never before, passing with precision, possessing the ball for long chunks of time and moving the ball with speed.
Landon Donovan, back in the national jersey for the first time in 11 months following a self-imposed sabbatical, has been outstanding. Through five Gold Cup matches, he has scored five goals and assisted on seven. The three-time World Cup veteran is carrying the team atop his shoulders like he did in the past, making everyone around him better, and there is no doubt Klinsmann will not only add him to upcoming World Cup qualifying rosters but eventually offer him a starting job for Brazil next summer.
There was a time a few months ago when Donovan’s future with the team was in serious doubt. His decision to take four months off last winter to recharge his battery and rediscover joy in his sport did not sit well with Klinsmann, a baker’s son who grew up rising before dawn to get to work. Klinsmann is from Germany, where national team soccer players don’t take breaks. He couldn’t empathize with Donovan’s leave of absence.
Despite Donovan’s U.S. records and history with the team, Klinsmann wasn’t about to gift him back his spot when so many other players were working their tails off during Donovan’s hiatus. So, he made him wait until he was fully fit and until he got the sense Donovan was fully motivated.
Based on the huge smile on Klinsmann’s face when Donovan scored his two goals in the semifinal, and the enthusiastic high fives they shared when Donovan finally left the game, it seems the relationship has been patched up.
“I think we are all very pleased with the way he’s playing and the way he’s proving a point that he’s hungry to come back into our picture and obviously going forward toward the World Cup qualifiers,” Klinsmann told reporters. “I think with every game he wants to prove that and show that, and he’s doing very well — not only on the field, but also off the field, how he reintegrated himself into the group.”
Said Donovan: “I think it’s the most relaxed I’ve ever felt, and the most enjoyable it’s felt in a long time. When that’s the case, I play well.”
Because this is a World Cup qualifying year, many of the Gold Cup teams are missing key players. The United States, for example, does not have regulars Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, to name a few. The Gold Cup was a chance for other players to make a case for the “A’’ roster, and several have done that in addition to Donovan.
Eddie Johnson, Chris Wondolowski, Stuart Holden, Joe Corona and Alejandro Bedoya (who grew up in Weston) have stood out. It will be interesting to see how Klinsmann integrates the best of this team to the team he has in place for the road to the World Cup.
They’ll have another audition Sunday against Panama (4 p.m., Fox and Univision).
The U.S. team beat Panama 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier last month and will be favored to win again Sunday. Panama is playing well, though. It addition to the 2-1 wins over Mexico, it beat Martinique 1-0, Cuba 6-1 and tied Canada 0-0. Its top threats are Gabriel Torres, who has scored five goals in the Gold Cup, and Blaz Perez of FC Dallas, who has three goals and an assist.
Granted, there are stronger opponents to come for the Americans, and the true test is at the World Cup next summer in Brazil. But for now, U.S. fans should be celebrating an exciting new brand of American soccer.
• Stars coming to Miami : The Guinness International Champions Cup rosters were announced, and all eight clubs plan to bring their marquee players to the summer tournament, which culminates with the championship rounds Aug. 6-7 at Sun Life Stadium. Among the stars confirmed are Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Mario Balotelli (A.C. Milan), Juan Mata (Chelsea), Carlos Tevez (Juventus), Esteban Cambiasso (Inter Milan), Donovan and Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy).
Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and at the stadium box office.
• Strikers: The Fort Lauderdale Strikers acquired 6-5 defender Bryan Gaul and midfielder Kenney Walker on loan from the Galaxy. The players will train with the team immediately in preparation for their fall season opener on Aug. 3 against the New York Cosmos in New York.
“We are extremely excited about Bryan and Kenney joining our squad for the fall season,” coach Günter Kronsteiner said. “It’s been challenging to prepare our team for the first game in such a short time frame, but I believe both Bryan and Kenney can be huge assets to the Strikers and should make an immediate impact on the field.”