The smiles on the faces of the American players said everything about their making the Gold Cup final. The smiles by the Mexicans they will face for the title were ones of relief.
Clarence Goodson scored at the end of the first half and Kenny Cooper at the end of the second to give the young Americans a 2-0 victory over Honduras on Thursday night. A few hours later, Mexico edged Costa Rica 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie.
So a basically JV U.S. squad has followed what the big boys did at the Confederations Cup in South Africa last month with a brilliant run of its own.
"It's obviously an honor every time you get to put the shirt on, so you want to do your best regardless of the situation, regardless of how well the boys did in the Confederations Cup," Goodson said. "But, having said that, obviously (the second-place performance in South Africa) is a little bit of added pressure. That set the bar high; they did well. Anyone who wants the opportunity to be on the team, you have to keep the standard very high."
Mexico certainly understands that anytime it meets its North American rival on the pitch. The teams will play a World Cup qualifier at Azteca next month _ but first things first.
"We're not focusing on that right now, we're focusing on our next match," said goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, hero of the win over Costa Rica by stopping one penalty kick while his teammates were perfect. "What's important is the match coming now, and we need to play well against them before we can start looking forward to (Aug. 12)."
The U.S. men stunned the soccer world last month by upsetting top-ranked Spain before falling to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. The Gold Cup may not have quite the buzz as that tournament, which also featured World Cup champion Italy, but this run is impressive in its own right.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley did a complete makeover of his roster after the Confederations Cup, letting most of his top players return to their MLS teams or take time off ahead of the European season. In their place, he brought in a bunch of youngsters, many making their first appearances with the senior national team.
While they might not have the flair of Landon Donovan, Tim Howard or Carlos Bocanegra, the kids have been more than all right.
The Americans have gone unbeaten in the tournament, and several young players have emerged who could play a role in next year's World Cup. Goodson is the sixth American to get his first goal during the Gold Cup. Stuart Holden had assists on both goals Thursday, adding to the two he scored in earlier games.
"They're not intimidated by the situations," said Brian Ching, the lone regular starter on the Gold Cup roster after missing the Confederations Cup with a strained hamstring. "Some of the guys have shown well, and that's always a good sign of things to come."
Goodson outjumped Carlo Costly for a corner kick by Holden and headed it past keeper Donis Escobar into the net. Goodson is the 10th U.S. player to score during the Gold Cup; the Americans have 12 goals overall.
Honduras had a chance to tie with 5 minutes to play, but goalkeeper Troy Perkins and defender Jay Heaps made big stops. Perkins made an excellent save on a shot by Costly, then Heaps made a sliding block to clear the rebound and end the threat.
Cooper then sealed the victory with a goal in the 90th, one-timing a pass from Holden past Escobar. As the Americans celebrated, Escobar leaned into the net, stone-faced.
It was the U.S. team's third win over Honduras in less than seven weeks, and the second at Soldier Field.
"I think it's going to be a sweet and sour taste going back home," Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda said. "We have to accept reality and learn from what we experienced here. ... We didn't reach our objective in reaching the final."
After Carlos Vela buried the fifth and final penalty into the corner of the net to seal the victory, he sprinted over and tackled Ochoa as the rest of their teammates rushed forward to join the dogpile.
This will be El Tri's sixth trip to the Gold Cup final, its only loss coming two years ago at the hands of the Americans. The final is Sunday at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
"We're very happy as a team," said Ochoa, who thwarted Froylan Ledezma in the shootout. Ledezma's goal in the 93rd minute sent this game into extra time. "This was a struggle against a very good team, but now we are through to the final."