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It’s another U.S.-Mexico final in Gold Cup

Late Wednesday afternoon, organizers of the Gold Cup soccer tournament announced that Saturday’s final at the Rose Bowl was sold out.

That left only one small detail unsettled: Which teams would play in the game?

Within hours that question had been answered too, when, to the surprise of no one, the U.S. and Mexico won their semifinal games at Reliant Stadium in Houston, setting up a U.S.-Mexico final for the third time in three Gold Cups.

What might have been surprising, though, is the difficulty both teams had in keeping their date, with the U.S. squeaking past Panama, 1-0, on Clint Dempsey’s goal late in the second half and Mexico needing overtime to beat Honduras, 2-0, on goals by Aldo De Nigris and Javier Hernandez.

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That sets up a title game between a defense-minded U.S. team that appears to be peaking at the right time, having gone 322 minutes without yielding a goal, and an explosive Mexican team that is beginning to sputter. After scoring a tournament-high 14 goals in group play, Mexico has been held scoreless in three of the four halves it has played since then.

The difference for the U.S. on Wednesday was two deft substitutions by Coach Bob Bradley, who has been under fire since his team lost to Panama in group play 12 days ago.

Bradley inserted Landon Donovan into the midfield to start the second half then, 21 minutes later, he pulled teenage striker Juan Agudelo in favor of Freddy Adu, who had yet to play in the tournament.

Those moves paid off in the 76th minute when an Adu cross from just beyond the midfield stripe found Donovan streaking down the right wing. Donovan settled the ball before dribbling to the edge of the penalty area, where he slipped a low pass past three defenders to Dempsey, whose sliding goal slipped just inside the far post.

“He put a perfect ball in,” Dempsey said of Donovan’s pass. “I just tried to get myself in a position to give myself a chance to get the goal. So all credit to him.

“Even though it wasn’t our best game we were still able to grind out a result.”

For Adu, 22, who had not played for the national team since the 2009 Gold Cup, setting up the game-winning score offered a bit of redemption.

“When the opportunity comes, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to help the team,” he said. “I was told to come in, bring energy … and I tried to do that.

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“When you get your chance, you have to make a difference. You have to reward your coach’s faith in you.”

Mexico also got a shot of energy from a second-half substitution when De Nigris, who came off the bench for Andres Guardado in the 53rd minute, headed a Pablo Barrera corner kick into the net three minutes into overtime. It was his fourth goal in five games.

Six minutes later, Hernandez scored his seventh goal of the Gold Cup, finishing off another play that began with a corner to De Nigris.

Mexico, which beat the U.S. in the 2009 final, has not lost a Gold Cup game since the 2007 final, which the U.S. won.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Baxter reported from Los Angeles.


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