One more road trip. One more match. One Gold Cup Final that could be the cherry on top of the sundae that is the best stretch of play in the 100-year history of US Men's Soccer. Jurgen Klinsmann is 90+ minutes of action away from putting any and all critics on mute for one entire year, and the fact of the matter is that the US coach and his Waldo-striped army should absolutely be hoisting a trophy come July 28.
Anything but a win on Sunday will be unacceptable in the eyes of American supporters.
Remember when Landon Donovan went on a hiatus and subsequently found himself in Klinsmann's doghouse? It seems like ages ago. Donovan announced his return to US Soccer in a big way in the July 5 friendly against Guatemala, and his star has merely gotten brighter and brighter since. In the past three weeks, Donovan went from being a fringe player who had to prove himself to his coach to a definite member of the 2014 World Cup squad to someone who has guaranteed himself a spot in the starting XI for what will likely be the final World Cup Qualifiers of his career.
Donovan was again the engine of the US attack on Wednesday, having a hand in all three of the team's tallies (two goals and a brilliant through ball that set up the Eddie Johnson strike). It's possible that the biggest highlight of the night that involved the LA Galaxy star came when he was subbed off 18 minutes from time. The first person to meet Donovan was his coach, who almost immediately embraced who will, regardless of what occurs on Sunday, be his team's MVP of this tournament.
Welcome home, Landon. We missed you, maybe even more than we could have imagined.
United States 3-1 Honduras: Up top
It took literally a handful of seconds during a US attack on Wednesday to remember what the previously mentioned Johnson brings to the table that Chris Wondolowski, try as he might, cannot routinely produce. Johnson used his pace and strength to beat a defender to a Donovan through ball and then hold his man off as he fired off a hit from 17 yards out that swooped around goalkeeper Donis Escobar for the match-opener. Wondo finds the back of the net through his positioning and by doing the so-called "dirty work" inside the penalty area.
Johnson is a true forward and a finisher, and the type of player you want starting up top in a Final.
It would be overly harsh to suggest that Donovan and Wondolowski didn't mesh in previous Gold Cup matches; rather, they were two different guys who were fighting for the same cause. In Donovan and Johnson, Klinsmann has himself a true partnership, one in which Donovan can contribute both up front and in the midfield as a distributor for the Seattle Sounders forward. Donovan and Johnson make up the competition's top one-two punch as the Final draws near, and thus don't be shocked if the duo is responsible for the goal that wins the Gold Cup.
United States 3-1 Honduras:losing is nice and all, but...
Now it's all on Team USA to finish the job. That Panama, not Mexico, has been the second-best team in the tournament and deserves to play for the trophy will not matter at all if the Americans stumble. The United States will enter Sunday as the favorite, a team that will have a noticeable home-field advantage unless thousands of Mexican football supporters descend on the Windy City with the sole purpose of rooting against the US.
Two things worry me about Panama: They're good on attacking set pieces, plays in which the US have leaked goals throughout this tournament, and they've also been playing like a confident side that knows it has nothing to lose. Who expected Panama to beat Mexico TWICE in under three weeks? Who expected that they, not Mexico, would be standing in the way of US and Gold Cup glory?
There have always been excuses whenever the US have struggled under Klinsmann. New philosophies were being preached, and players were trying to adjust to a new system. The manager hadn't yet had enough time for find his first-choice lineup. CONCACAF has gotten much, much better in a brief amount of time.
All of that goes out the window on Sunday, the first actual "must-win" game of the Klinsmann era. Win, and it's job done, the result that had been coming since that 6-1 drubbing of Belize. Fall short, and July 2013 will forever be labeled as nothing more than yet another failure for US Soccer.
Zac has been covering the USMNT, Holland, Tottenham Hotspur, New York Red Bulls, Major League Soccer and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.