U.S. happy for a chance to add to its trophy case, regardless of opponent
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Every time the Gold Cup comes around, the working assumption is that the U.S. and Mexico will meet in the final. More often than not, reality intrudes.
The two CONCACAF giants have met in the final five out of the 14 times the tournament has been held. But Wednesday's final for the 2017 edition marks the third consecutive tournament in which either the U.S. or Mexico missed out, with the Americans set to face Jamaica instead.
Mexico's absence has certainly reduced the amount of pregame hype, but U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard insisted it doesn't matter who the opponent is.
"For us, we're in the final, obviously, getting our hands on that trophy is paramount for us," Howard said. "We don't care who stands in our way."
Jamaica has been something of a Jekyll and Hyde team in recent years. It upset the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2015 Gold Cup and lost to Mexico in the final, but then it failed to reach the final round of World Cup qualifying. Longtime captain and midfielder Theodore Whitmore took over as manager for the fourth time, and the Reggae Boyz seem to have righted themselves. They twice avoided defeat against an admittedly understrength Mexico, including Sunday's 1-0 win in the Gold Cup semifinals.
"They're a different type of Jamaican team than we've seen in the past," coach Bruce Arena said. "They have a lot of discipline, they're very strong defensively, and they're hard to play against. That to me is not what you typically see out of a Jamaica team."
Jamaica's run has been bolstered by some otherworldly goalkeeping from Andre Blake, and the Philadelphia Union netminder is garnering serious consideration for player of the tournament, but the U.S. isn't concerned about Blake's form.
"He's athletic. He's a tall keeper, long arms, can make some big saves. He's good at coming out on crosses and being brave in there," U.S forward Clint Dempsey said of Blake. "But we've got Tim Howard, who we face all the time in training. Going up against him, he prepares us for anybody."
He added, "You've got to get your chances and put the chances you get on goal, put them on frame, make him work, put him under pressure. The more chances you create, the better chances you have to score. So we've just go to make sure that we're good in the attack, creating chances, and try to be clinical in front of goal."
Dempsey tied Landon Donovan's all-time U.S. scoring record in Saturday's 2-0 semifinal win over Costa Rica. The Texas native did so in 19 fewer games and with nine fewer penalties than Donovan. But he was also stuck on 56 for three scoreless games. That wasn't the longest goalless stretch for Dempsey by any means, but it was long enough to create some tension.
"It was on my mind a little bit, to be honest with you," he said of the record. "The most important thing was trying to qualify for the World Cup, then after that do well in this tournament. But then, yeah, individually, you can see that the goal is there, and for me to be able to have tied the record now and do it in less games and less [penalties], it kind of already feels like I broke it. Just got to keep pushing, enjoy my soccer now with a little bit of pressure off my back and just keep doing what I've always been doing for the U.S., just go out there and try my best to create goals for myself and others."
The fact that the U.S. is contesting a final on Wednesday didn't prevent Arena from taking a morsel of satisfaction from the year so far. Under his watch, the U.S. has taken eight points from its past four World Cup qualifiers, and the qualification effort is now off life support. In terms of the Gold Cup, Arena played a largely inexperienced group during the group stage and gathered some valuable data on the deeper elements of the player pool, chopping and changing his lineup along the way.
"You make one change, and you're concerned about it, let alone 11," he said. "Certainly, every game we played you're never quite certain what you're going to get, but overall we thought the plan we had would work."
Once Arena added five regulars after the group stage, the process continued, though in a way that was somewhat unexpected. Dempsey showed that he can indeed thrive in a supersub role, in part through some conversations with Arena.
In terms of how confident he was that Dempsey would accept such a role at age 34, Arena said, "I wasn't taking any bets on it. [Dempsey] is a good person. There was no reason to believe that he was going to go south. I think he wants to be part of this program, and we believe in him, so I think that there was certainly going to be a way where we'd reach an understanding as to the things he could do."
Now Arena believes that he has the clearest sense yet of what he has at his disposal as World Cup qualifying reaches its conclusion.
"I think I know who our top 44 players are," he said. "I think I now understand our four teams that we could put together and build a depth chart to take us through this tournament and the rest of the year and hopefully position ourselves for a World Cup."
For now, there's another trophy to win.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.