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U.S. and Mexico go for the Gold (Cup)

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, it’s time to move on to the main event.

And if there was any doubt just how important the CONCACAF Gold Cup is for the U.S. national soccer team, consider how the Americans viewed Saturday’s final tournament tuneup, a 4-0 blowout loss to World Cup champion Spain before a near-sellout crowd in Foxborough, Mass.

“If we win the Gold Cup in a couple of weeks, nobody will remember this,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said afterward.

“This,” midfielder Clint Dempsey said beforehand, “is a friendly.”

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And the Gold Cup is not.

At stake in the 12-nation tournament is the region’s automatic berth into the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, an important precursor to the World Cup. But no less important is the growingly bitter U.S. rivalry with Mexico.

Those teams are widely expected to meet in the championship match June 25 at the Rose Bowl, just as they have in four previous Gold Cup finals. Mexico has won three of those, including the last one, a 5-0 rout.

Also on the line — though perhaps in a less-obvious way — may be Bob Bradley’s future as coach of the U.S. men’s team. Expectations were high for the U.S. at last summer’s World Cup, and though the Americans won their group, they also underperformed, winning only one match before being bounced in the second round by Ghana.

Bradley seems aware that any similar slip-ups here could prove fatal.

“We have said since the start of the new cycle that winning the Gold Cup this year is a top priority,” he said.

The tournament gets underway Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with Costa Rica meeting Cuba and Mexico playing El Salvador in Group A.

Group B begins play Monday at the Home Depot Center in Carson with Jamaica battling Grenada at 6 p.m. and Honduras taking on Guatemala at 8 p.m.

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The U.S., drawn into Group C, meets Canada in its first match Tuesday in Detroit. Panama takes on Guadeloupe in the group opener.

The top two teams in each group, plus the two best third-place teams, advance to the quarterfinals. The semifinals will be June 22 in Houston with the winners advancing to Pasadena for the final.

And if the U.S. and Mexico do, indeed, meet in the final, they figure to follow contrasting paths to the Rose Bowl.

Bradley, whose game plans can be painfully conservative, served notice that he’s planning more of the same when the 23-man roster he chose for the tournament contained 14 members of last year’s World Cup team. But he has only three true strikers in teenager Juan Agudelo of the New York Red Bulls, defending MLS scoring champion Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes and World Cup veteran Jozy Altidore.

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Agudelo has played only 13 games in Major League Soccer, Wondolowski has only two international caps and Altidore has scored two goals in his last two seasons in Europe.

And though Bradley can certainly count on some offense from attacking midfielders such as Landon Donovan and, he hopes, Freddy Adu, if the U.S. continues to play as it did against Spain — when it rested many of its best players, getting one shot on goal — it has little chance to match Mexico’s firepower.

Jose Manuel de la Torre, Mexico’s creative first-year coach, picked six forwards, including 23-year-old Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez, who scored 13 goals in his debut season in England’s Premier League and added four more in Champions League play.

He’ll be joined on the front line by explosive World Cup veterans Giovanni Dos Santos and Pablo Barrera.

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And like the U.S. team, the Mexicans are under pressure to rebound from a hugely disappointing effort in South Africa, in which El Tri staggered into the second round and was blitzed by Argentina, costing Coach Javier Aguirre his job.

“Winning this Gold Cup is more important than ever,” defender Ricardo Osorio said. “As a Mexican player, to wear Mexico’s national team shirt is a maximum honor. In your lifetime you get few opportunities to represent your country.”

Costa Rica, led by Bryan Ruiz, who scored twice against the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier, also brings a strong team, as does Honduras, which played in the World Cup last summer for only the second time.

But while those countries would consider anything beyond group play a success, for Mexico and the U.S. anything short of a Gold Cup title would be a failure.

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“We certainly look at this Gold Cup as being such an important tournament for the United States and something that we really put a lot of time and effort into,” Bradley said.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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