This was the perfect Gold Cup for an outsider to steal. Honduras, perhaps. Or Canada.

Instead, Sunday’s final at the Meadowlands will have that familiar if not comfortable look when the United States and Mexico, by far the most dominant nations in CONCACAF, meet for the title.

Neither country sent its best team to the biennial event, with the United States fielding something of a JV squad with players unproven on the international scene. Those players, particularly Stuart Holden, Kyle Beckerman and Heath Pearce, have performed well on the regional stage after the big boys lost in the Confederations Cup final to Brazil earlier this summer.

Mexico is missing some key players, too, and it has been struggling in World Cup qualifying, sitting fourth behind leader Costa Rica, the Americans and Hondurans. Yet Mexico survived a difficult round-robin in the Gold Cup, beat Costa Rica on penalty kicks in the semifinal, and has every reason to believe it can walk off with the trophy for the fifth time in its sixth trip to the finals.

“The United States is always a very difficult opponent and it will be a challenge for us,” said Guillermo Ochoa, whose penalty-kick save was the difference against Costa Rica. “But we played well (in the semifinals) and it gives us a lot of confidence for the final.”

Ochoa was a backup when the Americans beat the Mexicans for the 2007 Gold Cup. With Mexico in dire straits in World Cup qualifying, and facing an Aug. 12 home match against the U.S. team — with all of its top players — Ochoa could do some positive for his career and his nation’s chances to make the South Africa 2010 field by beating the hosts.

But winning in the United States has been impossible for El Tri this decade: the Americans are 9-0-2, with some of the games getting downright nasty. Of course, U.S.-Mexico is as heated a soccer rivalry as you’ll find in CONCACAF.

“We need to be looking at this final, not the other match,” Mexico coach Javier Aguirre said.

Still, a win Sunday, even with a vastly different lineup than each side will field at Azteca next month, would be huge for El Tri.

“I don’t think it sets a tone,” U.S. forward Brian Ching said.

Ching is a rare veteran of international play on this U.S. squad, and wore the captain’s band in the semifinal. “But on a personal level, we’ve done well against them in the U.S. and you don’t want to be the team that lets them win at home.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.