Record-tying Dempsey helps U.S. beat Costa Rica 2-0, reach Gold Cup final
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three thoughts from the United States' 2-0 win over Costa Rica on Saturday night in the 2017 Gold Cup semifinals.
1. Dempsey sparks U.S. to victory
While it might not be quite the time yet to label Clint Dempsey as a "super sub" for the U.S. national team, he played the role with aplomb Saturday in sparking the U.S. to a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in the Gold Cup semifinals at AT&T Stadium.
The result sends the U.S. to a 10th Gold Cup final, where it will likely face familiar foe Mexico, assuming El Tricolor overcome Jamaica on Sunday.
Dempsey's entrance in the 66th minute was exactly what the U.S. needed at that point in a nervous game; not only did he inject life into the crowd, but he gave the U.S. a creative presence in the middle of the field that had been missing until then.
Playing in his home state, Dempsey thrived and set the table for Jozy Altidore's 72nd-minute winner by dancing through a pair of Costa Rica defenders before playing a perfectly weighted pass for the Toronto FC forward to slot home.
Dempsey's 82nd-minute free kick, which sneaked around the Costa Rica wall and skirted in past Ticos goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton, was the icing on the cake for a player who now stands side by side with Landon Donovan on the all-time men's national team scoring list with 57 goals.
Dempsey has had a number of memorable matches in a U.S. uniform -- too many to count, really -- and certainly Costa Rica has felt the brunt of some of them, but this might well be remembered in U.S. soccer lore as "the Dempsey game." And well it should, too.
2. Arena's lineup holds the line
In his prematch news conference, Arena had mentioned that the U.S. finally felt as if it could field a "familiar" lineup for the semifinal, which explains why many an eyebrow was raised when the starting XI was released and Dempsey's name was omitted.
Up front, Jordan Morris performed quite well, hitting the post just 11 seconds in and giving the U.S. some good energy down the right, along with Paul Arriola in the first half. Once Dempsey came on the field though, the attack came together.
Overall, there was familiarity all over the place for the Gold Cup hosts. The 2014 World Cup's center-back combo of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez offered a sense of stability to a back line. The two still had their fair share of shaky moments, but they weren't nearly as bad as in previous matches this tournament.
There was also the midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta, the same duo that helped tame Mexico in the Azteca last month. Though Acosta struggled playing alongside Dax McCarty against Panama, it is evident that with the more experienced Bradley at his side, Acosta is much more comfortable.
Overall, the presence of Bradley cannot be overstated enough. Ever the safety valve and steady hand, Bradley's impact in these tight CONCACAF matches is invaluable. Playing a deeper role in midfield suits his strengths so much better, and that proved true again here.
Finally, a word on Tim Howard. At this moment it is going to take something special for someone to beat the 38-year-old. Fortunately in this tournament, he does have to be relied upon so heavily the way he was in Brazil three years ago, but nonetheless, the U.S. will always like its chances with him as the No. 1.
3. A sign of things to come in September
There had been plenty of talk before the match about the last meeting between the two teams, which had ended 4-0 in Costa Rica's favor, and also about how last summer the U.S. had drilled the Ticos by the same score line in the Copa America.
Those were outliers, though. Over the course of the history between the U.S. and Costa Rica, their matches on U.S. soil tend to be tight affairs, often with just a single goal scored. With the two 4-0 results well in the rearview mirror, things reverted back to normal Saturday night.
It should be the same when the two teams meet in September in Harrison, New Jersey, for what will be a crucial World Cup qualifier. Many of the protagonists who were featured Saturday will also be on display in September, so it's best now for U.S. fans to accept that it'll be another nervy 90 minutes at Red Bull Arena in six weeks' time.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .