It is the Gold Cup final that most hoped for: On Sunday, the United States meets Mexico with CONCACAF glory on the line. Ahead of the big game, we asked Jeff Carlisle (U.S.) and Tom Marshall (Mexico) to evaluate the form of the teams they cover.
Just prior to the Gold Cup, the U.S. men's national team looked to be a shambles, having been thrashed 3-0 by Venezuela in a friendly that followed a 1-0 reverse to Jamaica four days earlier.
While there were some extenuating circumstances -- fitness and the absence of key players being two -- the results and performances did nothing to hint that better days were ahead.
Everything was being questioned, from the ability of those on the roster to the methods of manager Gregg Berhalter, who had been on the job for all of six months. It seemed like little progress had been made since the World Cup qualifying failure 20 months ago.
It has been some turnaround since then. From having to appeal for calm ahead of the tournament opener, Berhalter is preparing to lead his side into Sunday's final, having won five straight games while conceding just one goal.
The Gold Cup might be maligned and the U.S. has the advantage of playing on home soil, but its competitive nature nonetheless poses a different test. Opponents Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Curacao and Jamaica do not constitute the big hitters of the international game, but Berhalter's men were in no position to take anything for granted.
The path to a Chicago showdown with Mexico has at least seen the Americans beat the teams that they are supposed to beat. Moreover, there have been moments of aggressive pressing and dynamic play on the ball.
So what has changed since those deflating friendly defeats? Some of it is a function of time: Berhalter has had four more weeks to impart his system and philosophy, while players have bonded on and off the field, be it over crosswords, video games or cooking contests.
Fitness has also been a factor: Aaron Long has shaken off injury woes and been a consistently strong presence in the back, offsetting the loss of usual starter John Brooks. The same is true of midfielder Michael Bradley. Jozy Altidore has taken longer, but he started the semifinal against Jamaica and is primed to make a major contribution.
But the biggest difference is that Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie are playing close to their peak levels. Both arrived in camp following short rest at the end of their club seasons, and after taking a while to get going, Pulisic has been a menace running at defenses and with his finishing, while McKennie tore Jamaica apart with his passing and late runs into the box.
Berhalter deserves credit for his tactical flexibility. Heading into the tournament, all eyes were on a system that included a hybrid right-back/center midfield role. The idea was to get "stability and activity" in the center of the park, which is Berhalter-speak for safety with the ball and defensive tenacity.
However, the withdrawal through injury of Tyler Adams -- the player for whom the system was implemented -- saw Berhalter move to a more conventional back four, with McKennie dropping deeper to help Bradley on the defensive side of the ball. There have been hiccups, most notably against Curacao when the two were often not on the same page, but in other games, the U.S. looked more stable.
There has been much talk about what would constitute success for the U.S. at the Gold Cup -- Berhalter has talked of little else than winning the tournament -- but the last month has seen progress and a sense that order is being restored as young talent begins to prove itself on the international stage.
A win on Sunday would only accelerate the process. -- Jeff Carlisle
As boring as it may sound, there has not actually been one attention-grabbing reason why El Tri has swept away pre-tournament concerns to reach the final.
The elephant in the room had been players not involved, who include Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, Hector Herrera and Miguel Layun, but the page has long been turned by coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino, who has insisted those who are here can challenge absent names for places ahead of the next World Cup.
Perhaps helped by the fact that only five members of the squad have won the Gold Cup before, there has been a hunger and seriousness about Mexico, even when coming up against lesser opponents like Cuba, ranked 175th in the world, and Haiti, who are 101st.
In this regard, Martino has set the tone. In March, he was blunt with Corona for not showing sufficient dedication to report for camp when injured and has not been much less intense since, firing off criticisms about officiating and the lack of VAR. Indeed, Martino is not known as a coach who likes press attention, but he has had plenty to say.
Behind the scenes, Martino has worked constantly with his players to ingrain 4-3-3 as the Plan A formation, stressing that Plans B and C simply do not exist. The priority has been to firmly establish the playing "idea," as he says in Spanish.
And things have gone relatively smoothly for a Mexico side that has been backed by huge crowds wherever it has gone -- although needing 120 minutes and penalties to get past Costa Rica in the quarterfinal and then extra time to put away Haiti in the semis is cause for some concern.
The biggest single issue has been chance conversion, which has at times undermined Mexico's dominance of possession and territory. Elsewhere, Martino accepts that his team leaves itself vulnerable at the back when he talks of pushing players forward, playing the game in the opposition's half and leaving gaps on the transition, unless the ball can be regained quickly.
In terms of key figures, Edson Alvarez has been handed the crucial holding midfield role. Martino spoke at length to the 21-year-old ahead of training on Friday, and maintaining defensive balance will be vital with Christian Pulisic in form and likely to be drifting between the lines.
Team leaders Andres Guardado, Guillermo Ochoa and Raul Jimenez have guided the younger players around them, and the veterans will be important on Sunday, with Martino set to field a starting XI that should not contain too many surprises.
Ochoa is the undisputed No. 1, with full-backs Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez and Jesus Gallardo set to start alongside Hector Moreno and Carlos Salcedo in defense. Alvarez anchors the midfield, with Jonathan dos Santos and Guardado ahead of him. Up front, Jimenez will be supported by Rodolfo Pizarro and either Uriel Antuna or Roberto Alvarado.
One accusation against El Tri is that performances have deteriorated as the summer has gone on, but the truth is that the past few weeks have led to this defining moment. If Mexico wins, the Gold Cup will be deemed a success, but a loss would be slated as failure and bring about the first real pressure upon Martino. -- Tom Marshall