No team gets to a final to lose. That’s what the U.S. MNT and coach Bruce Arena will be thinking tonight when they take on Jamaica in the Gold Cup Final in Santa Clara, California, not withstanding the coach’s pre-Cup comments downplaying the importance of winning the event.
With Arena prioritizing September’s crucial World Cup Qualifying matches against Costa Rica (9/1 @Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.) and Honduras (9/5 @TBD San Pedro Sula, Honduras) the CONCACAF regional championship took on a lesser role.
Mexico had just competed in the Confederations Cup prior to the Gold Cup and El Tri, like the Americans, sent a diminished squad to the CONCACAF Championship.
The Yanks failed to impress in the group stage, doing just enough to advance with its B or C team, only hitting stride in the semifinal win over Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal match, Mexico was sent home by Jamaica, in a result that was less shocking than it seemed. The two sides had played to a dour 0-0 draw in group action with Mexico’s fourth, fifth and sixth choice strikers failing miserably to make El Tri fans forget West Ham’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
To get to the final Reggae Boyz keeper Andre Blake did his part to frustrate Mexico’s understudies as the Jamaica racked up its third shutout of the five matches played to date.
The American defense has also stepped up since the beginning of knockout play, not coincidentally coinciding with the arrival of Tim Howard. After Bill Hamid backstopped the U.S. to a 3-0 win over Nicaragua in the final group match, Howard took over with a pair of 2-0 wins resulting.
A dirty El Salvador side turned the quarterfinals into a battle of attrition with the favored Yanks happy just to move on but Arena’s squad found a vein of form in a satisfying win over Costa Rica.
If the U.S. can recapture that level of play then they should be able to claim a sixth Gold Cup to move within one title of Mexico. Arena is expected to go with much the same lineup that featured against the Ticos with Clint Dempsey’s role the most intriguing.
The U.S. MNT legend scored his 57th international goal to tie Landon Donovan as the all time number one U.S. MNT goalscorer. Dempsey should get a chance to take sole possession of that record tonight, but will he get the chance from the start or off the U.S. bench?
The 34-year-old changed the game when he was sprung from the bench by Arena in the 66th minute versus Costa Rica, setting up Jozy Altidore for the first goal of the match before curling home a delightful free kick to tie Donovan and kill off the Ticos.
Dempsey referenced his comeback from heart problems in suggesting that he was ok with a subs role while Arena pointed to the compact tournament schedule and Dempsey’s age, noting that the Seattle Sounders veteran will be used as a starter or off the bench going forward.
Jamaica will be expected to defend and counter, a tactic that makes sense given the team’s defensive record and the speed at coach Theodore Whitmore’s disposal.
Having fallen to Mexico in the 2015 Championship match, the Reggae Boyz are competing in their second consecutive Gold Cup Final, a first for the team.
To get to that final two years ago Jamaica defeated a U.S. team coached by Jurgen Klinsmann. U.S. vets like Michael Bradley, Howard, and Dempsey will want to avenge that result while Arena would surely love to succeed where his predecessor failed.