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U.S. seek Gold Cup title against surprising Panama

New U.S. soccer coach Juergen Klinsmann poses during an interview with Reuters in southern California December 31, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Kirsch
New U.S. soccer coach Juergen Klinsmann poses during an interview with Reuters in southern California December 31, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Kirsch

(Reuters) - The United States are overwhelming favorites to lift their fifth CONCACAF Gold Cup title when they face surprise package Panama in the final at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday.

Mexico, the winners of the last two Gold Cups, surrendered their title as the region's powerhouse when they were beaten by Panama in Wednesday's semi-finals, setting up a repeat of the 2005 Gold Cup final between Panama and the U.S.

The Americans won the 2005 final in a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out but will face an improved Panama side this time.

Despite fielding a mostly second-string team to save their top players for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. have been in great form, currently on a record 10-match winning streak and piling on the goals.

They scored 11 times in their Group matches then added another eight in their two playoffs with Chris Wondolowski and the evergreen Landon Donovan banging in five each during the tournament.

The 31-year-old Donovan is the competition's all-time leading scorer with 18 goals from six Gold Cup appearances and is showing no signs of slowing down, playing like a man on a mission after losing his spot in the World Cup squad when he took a three-month sabbatical at the start of the year.

"He's proving a point that he's hungry to come back into our picture," said U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann. "Every game he wants to prove it and show that and he's doing very well."

Klinsmann is chasing his first title with the team after taking over as head coach in 2011 but has been banned from the sidelines for Sunday's final after being ejected for dissent in the semi-final win over Honduras in Texas.

Panama are bidding for their first Gold Cup title. The Canaleros only just qualified for the 12-nation event but earned their place in the final the hard way, beating Mexico in the group stage then again in the semis.

Striker Gabriel Torres has scored five times but the key to Panama's success has been their water-tight defense, giving up just three goals in five matches.

"We're going to go up against a rival with a great squad, but I think we have great possibilities of lifting the cup for the first time in history," Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes said.

(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry)

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