Soldier Field, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t get to host many high-profile international soccer matches anymore. Sunday was an exception.
The lone match of the month-long CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament played at Chicago’s lakefront venue was the final between the U.S. and Panama. The 1-0 win by the U.S. was one of the best soccer matches ever played at Soldier Field and a great rebound from the only other time the sport was played at the stadium in 2013.
A charity exhibition – Messi & Friends vs. the World – was a poorly-promoted fiasco on July 6 that did damage to soccer’s popularity in Chicago in particular and the Midwest in general. The exhibition was designed as a tribute to Argentine legend Lionel Messi, but Messi didn’t play the whole match and ducked out off a meet-and-greet with fans – many of whom paid over $2,000 to attend. The World team was hardly that, as several Northwestern University players were needed to field a team. Fans deservedly felt cheated.
That bad experience was erased with the entertaining, tension-filled Gold Cup final. The U.S. got the win on a 69th minute goal by Brek Shea, who had entered the match only 42 seconds earlier.
This was a great display of international soccer, though the match wasn’t a sellout. After drawing over 80,000 for the mid-week semifinals in Irving, Tex., the final lured 57,920 – about 6,000 short of capacity. Had Mexico beaten Panama in Texas, the Soldier Field sellout would have been a given.
Panama, though, beat Mexico twice in the Gold Cup and was a tough opponent for the U.S. in the final. The U.S. won the Gold Cup for the fifth time – only Mexico, with six titles, has won more times – and ran its record winning streaks to 11 overall and 10 in those played at home.
The U.S. won its previous Gold Cups in 1991, 2002, 2005 and 2007. In 2005 the title also came against Panama, a match that was decided on penalty kicks after finishing 0-0 in regulation time.
This U.S. win came with German head coach Jurgen Klinsmann watching from the press box. He was suspended for a temper tantrum in the semifinals, but his absence on the bench wasn’t felt much.
What was most important in this Gold Cup was the play of midfielder Landon Donovan. The long-time U.S. star took himself out of the national team picture for several months, but his enthusiasm for the game has returned. He had five goals and eight assists in the Gold Cup, a good sign that he will help the U.S. effort in what remains of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. That competition and, of course, the World Cup finals in Brazil next year are what really count in international soccer.
The U.S. isn’t assured a spot in Brazil yet, but it is on top of the Hexagonal competition to determine three teams that will get there. The U.S. has a 4-1-1 record, and its 13 points is two more than Costa Rica (3-1-2). Those teams meet in Costa Rica on Sept. 6.
After that the U.S. faces Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 10, tests Jamaica in Kansas City on Oct. 11 and visits Panama on Oct. 15.
Mexico (1-0-5) is in third place in the Hexagonal but in danger of not making it to the finals. Panama (1-2-3) had Mexico’s number in the Gold Cup and could claim the third spot with a good finish in the two months remaining in the Hexagonal.
As for the U.S., a berth in Brazil should be assured with a win at Costa Rica, and the Gold Cup could be a springboard to a good showing in the World Cup.
"This (the Gold Cup) is a lot different than a World Cup,’’ said Donovan after picking up the Most Valuable Player award for the July tournament. "But we’re making a lot of progress.’’