Bruce Arena’s original Gold Cup roster fit the essence of the tournament itself, a B-list team for a B-list tournament, but still one with plenty of intriguing young talent. One eye was on the present, the other on Russia 2018 and the challenging path still ahead of the Stars and Stripes to get there.
Following an uneven group stage, Arena’s six additions for the knockout stages included first-team veterans Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Bradley and Altidore were on hand last November for a 4-0 shellacking in Costa Rica, and Bradley and Dempsey played in the USA’s 2-1 defeat in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals. Both losses came under Jurgen Klinsmann, and with the opportunity for redemption on the table, Arena was more aggressive with the roster changes than any other coach.
Of course, it’s not as if revenge was the only reason Arena brought in some regulars — he couldn’t have known for sure the U.S. would end up facing the teams it has. But the Gold Cup also represents the last chance for his vets to play in an international tournament setting before the World Cup. Additionally, their presence is important in the development of the young players, of which there remain plenty. The ability to pair Bradley with 22-year-old Kellyn Acosta, for example, is a mutually beneficial experience as well as a possible preview of a two-man midfield engine we could see at times going forward.
As fate would have it, after slogging past El Salvador, the United States did face — and dispatch in impressive fashion — Costa Rica in the semifinal. The night couldn’t have gone much better for Arena. Dempsey set up Altidore for his first international goal since early September 2016, and then Deuce clinched the victory with his 57th career goal, tying Landon Donovan.
Jamaica, meanwhile, shocked Mexico 1-0 at the Rose Bowl, with an organized defense and an 88th-minute free kick curler from Kemar Lawrence carrying the day.
“We knew we had to come out and be very organized, very patient defensively, and we did just that,” said Jamaican keeper Andre Blake, who stood tall in net with several spectacular saves. Blake hailed the win as the most important in recent memory for his nation.
So now, fittingly, all that stands between the United States and its first title since the 2013 Gold Cup is the same squad that began the downfall of the Klinsmann regime. The core of that Jamaica team isn’t here, with the Reggae Boyz opting to field a younger roster for experience, but there’s still a chance at a measure of redemption. Jamaica’s been outstanding and disciplined behind the ball at this Gold Cup with three clean sheets in five matches, and the team’s ability to turn any opponent miscue into a pacy attack was on display multiple times in the second half against El Tri.
For the United States, the ability to distribute in the midfield and hold possession in the attacking third will be key. Acosta has impressed at times with his passing ability and end-to-end play, but he does have a tendency to be caught on the ball, and that can be especially dangerous against Jamaica. The United States can’t outpace the opposition, but it can certainly counter Jamaica’s speed with precision and creativity — something Dempsey brings in particular.
Though Jamaica isn’t the side most people expected the United States to face in the final, it does represent an important opportunity. It’s a chance to put old demons behind, a chance to take home hardware, a chance to mix the old with new and a chance to put a tangible mark on Arena’s impressive start to his second stint at the U.S. helm. The Gold Cup may be considered a B-rate tournament, and the roster may lack much of what the United States hopes to take to Russia in 11 months, but there’s still plenty of importance attached to Wednesday night’s match in Santa Clara.
More soccer coverage from FC Yahoo:
• Schaerlaeckens: What lies in store for Mexico, Osorio now?
• Late free kick, Blake’s heroics help Jamaica shock Mexico
• USMNT knocks out Costa Rica in semis as Dempsey ties record