June 25, 2011
By Michael Lewis
Gold Cup final will be an 'ugly, cold-blooded confrontation'
PASADENA, Calif. -- For U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, the CONCACAF Gold Cup final should be a typical U.S.-Mexico confrontation taken to yet another level.
Tim Howard: "When you walk out there it's not easy. It's difficult. There's a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure for both teams. That's how you perform, under those pressures."
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
He doesn't expect the game to win any beauty contests. The other prize both teams are concerned about are the Gold Cup trophy and a trip to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
"These games are ugly," Howard said. "They're cold blooded, man."
There is no bigger game or rivalry in the confederation as the Americans vs. El Tri is one of the biggest, if not the biggest National Team rivalry in the world. So the pressure can be off the charts when the match kicks off at the Rose Bowl a little after 9 p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel, Univision).
"These games take care of themselves," Howard said. "The soccer side of it, how you pull together defensively and shape, that all takes care of itself. That's understood. You do it subconsciously. The thing about these games, it's the atmosphere.
"When you walk out there it's not easy. It's difficult. There's a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure for both teams. That's how you perform, under those pressures. It's not whether you can pass the ball. We can shoot, they can shoot. All those things come naturally. It's who can handle the pressure. It's a tough game. They'll be kicking. I'm sure somebody will sent off, hopefully not from our team. These games are ugly. They're cold blooded, man. It's about who handles that."
Howard has been through that pressure cooker before, having played against the Mexicans in international friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and the 2007 Gold Cup final, which the Americans won to reach the 2009 Confederations Cup.
"It's the same today," he said. "It's passion. There's a ton of respect. Every now and then it borders hatred. But its passion, itís good. I think we have a very healthy respect for them. Whether they say it or not, they have a healthy respect for us, which they should.'
The teams match up well.
"It's such a contrast of styles that it leads to good games," Howard said. "I don't know if we're underdogs or not. It doesn't matter. We still have to go out there and handle the pressure of the big occasion. If we can do that, that's what matter, not really who's the favorite. That doesn't matter when you step on the field. That's all paper talk."
That match-up features The Mexicansí' lethal attack against the Americans' team defense and backline, which has improved throughout the tournament.
"It should be good," Howard said. "We've been rock solid defensively and they've been on fire offensively. So the chess match will be interesting. It's a final, so both teams will be tight. Always is. But as the game goes, it's going to be a helluva afternoon, man. We're looking forward to it."
The U.S. hasn't surrendered a goal in 324 minutes, since the 36th minute of its 2-0 first-round loss to Panama. Mexico has outscored its opposition, 18-2.
The El Tri attack features the fabulous Javier Hernandez -- aka Chicharito -- who has blossomed into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers on the planet. His supporting cast cannot be discounted -- striking partner Giovani dos Santos, midfielders Pablo Barrera and Andres Guardado, who might not play due to a heel injury, and super-sub Aldo de Nigris, who has come off the bench to score a couple of key goals.
In fact, Howard felt Mexico features its best attack.
"I don't get it right often but a couple of years ago I said these kids will be become good when they get together and play well. They'll be a heck of a team. And that's what they are now," he said. "Some of the young kids have blossomed and have become border line superstars. They're getting there. We knew they were going to form together. It's up to us to stop them. We've got our hands full. But listen, U.S.-Mexico they're going to have their hands full as well."
The humble Hernandez is the star of the Mexicans, having tallied a tournament-best seven goals. While Howard respected Chicharito, he noted that Mexico is far from a one-man show.
"It's more than him," he said. "If he's out there by himself we bottle him up. Eleven vs. one is easy. They've got 11 players. It's going to be difficult. They create a lot of chances. They try to open you up. They try to put in a position that you don't want to be defensively. What we've done this tournament is put teams in positions that they don't want to be."
Young American players such as midfielder Michael Bradley and striker Juan Agudelo will play in their first big international final. Bradley did not participate in the 2009 Confederations Cup championship game due to a yellow-card suspension.
"It's how you manage that," Howard said. "That's the X factor. I think we're prepared. It's about how both teams handle that. Juan's young. Sometimes there's a fearless about youth that I wish I had back because I can remember going out -- and in hindsight -- being more nervous today thinking about finals than I was when I played in them because I didn't know any better. So that's good. Michael, for such a young kid he is so experienced. The big games don't faze him. He plays like a veteran player. As far as tough hard-nosed players out there, he tops the list tomorrow. We have no doubts about that."