ATLANTA — The U.S. national team’s regional reign ended at the Georgia Dome against a group of Jamaican players who were just a bit better in the moments that mattered most. The Americans’ heady two years atop CONCACAF—a stretch that included the 2013 Gold Cup title and a first-place finish in World Cup qualifying—were swept away during five sloppy minutes in the first half of Wednesday’s Gold Cup semifinal.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his players and die-hard optimists will note that the heavily favored hosts played some of their best soccer of this tournament against Jamaica, especially during a raucous second half that began with Michael Bradley’s goal. But the captain’s second Gold Cup marker wasn’t enough to overhaul the Reggae Boyz, who held off the desperate Americans before 70,511 fans and celebrated an historic 2–1 triumph.
Jamaica’s second win over the U.S. in 23 tries catapulted it to Sunday’s final in Philadelphia, where it will be the first Caribbean team to play for the Gold Cup trophy. And it left the U.S. grasping, trying to make sense of an agonizing loss that very well may be the biggest upset in American soccer history.
No World Cup final defeat could be considered a stunner, and it’s frustrating, but not shocking, when the U.S. falls in a road qualifier. The last home qualifying loss came in 2001, when a talented Honduran team defeated Bruce Arena’s U.S. 3–2 at RFK Stadium. But that was an American team still coming into its own, not yet a World Cup quarterfinalist and a decade removed from its most recent Gold Cup title.
Wednesday’s defeat, on paper, was significantly more stunning. Jamaica is ranked 76th in the world, hadn’t advanced to the Gold Cup semis in 17 years and had never beaten the Americans in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. hadn’t lost on home soil to any Caribbean team since 1969. The Americans had qualified for five consecutive Gold Cup finals and had never been eliminated from the competition by a CONCACAF nation aside from Mexico.
In the end, the weight of that history meant nothing. Jamaica shook it off. All it took for the Reggae Boyz to erase those long odds and rewrite history was a bit of clinical opportunism. In an even game, they finished their chances. The U.S. didn’t.
“That’s football,” U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
Bradley uttered the same words moments later.
“We lost this game with two set pieces we conceded, as simple as that,” Klinsmann said. “And we had enough chances to put three, four, five in there and we didn’t do that and that’s why at the end of the day, we lost it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality. Congratulations to Jamaica for being in the final. And we have to swallow that pill.”
It’s a pill made more bitter by the weight Klinsmann put on this competition. Not only did the U.S. hope to extend its stay atop the CONCACAF mountain, it was eager to secure automatic qualification to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. Wednesday’s loss means the Americans will have to face the new Gold Cup champion in an October playoff. Meanwhile, questions will be raised about why a tournament that meant so much ended so abruptly. Yes, there was travel and heat and a compressed schedule, but that was true for all.
And the U.S. had the easiest quarterfinal possible, a 6–0 rout of Cuba, then three days to rest before facing the Jamaicans. Critics may point to Klinsmann’s steadfast belief in young central defenders John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado, who have struggled at times during the Gold Cup, when searching for an answer or a scapegoat. It was Brooks’s turn to be beaten on Wednesday. But the U.S. had more than enough chances to undo that damage. In the end, Jamaica mastered more moments.
“Today was a throw-in and a free kick and they come away as the winning team,” Klinsmann said of the plays that led to Jamaica’s goals. “I cannot complain about the performance of [our] team. They gave everything. They kept pushing, pushing and we had enough chances at the end of the day to score the goals we needed in order to get to the final and we didn’t do that.”
Said Bradley, “Between missing a little bit of luck, a little bit [of] sharpness, whatever you want to call it at that point, we weren’t able to find the play that we needed.”
The U.S. started well and created a couple of early chances against a well-organized, compact opponent. Clint Dempsey, who finished the Gold Cup with six goals, put a shot over the crossbar in the 15th minute. Aron Jóhannsson saw his threatening close-range cross cleared in the 23rd and Gyasi Zardes missed the frame a minute later. In the 28th, Jóhannsson nearly scored after stealing the ball from Jamaica goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, who plays for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the third-tier USL.
Then it all unraveled in the 31st minute. A long throw-in from defender Kemar Lawrence (New York Red Bulls) floated onto the head of forward Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps), who somehow managed to gain position on Brooks, who’s at least six inches taller. Mattocks’s header soared over Guzan, off the inside of the right post and across the line.
Five minutes later, Guzan made an innocent mistake that cost the U.S. dearly. He was whistled for a hand ball after his arm extended beyond the edge of the penalty area as he threw the ball to a teammate. Houston Dynamo forward Giles Barnes blasted the ensuing free kick over the wall and inside the right post.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that call,” Guzan said. “Especially when it’s a matter of inches and the linesman is three yards behind me. I think that’s an impressive call from his point of view. Again, listen, the referee’s given it. You’ve got to try to defend it. He’s taken a good free kick ... From our point of view, probably two disappointing goals.”
Bradley called it “a head-scratcher.”
The U.S. was reeling, but managed to hold it together it until halftime. Then it restarted the game on fire. Bradley scored his second of the tournament in the 48th, after Dempsey dislodged the ball from Thompson following Jóhannsson’s shot. In the 51st, Jóhannsson missed a point-blank header that came off an inviting rebound.
“We were able to sustain some things and really put pressure on them to get the second goal,” Bradley said. “When you have that many numbers behind the ball, it’s going to take a special play, a ball bouncing for you a little bit, a little bit of luck, a combination of all of the above. Tonight we couldn’t find it.”
The flurry suggested a second goal was inevitable. But it was Jóhannsson’s miss that was the omen. Brooks side-footed a shot straight at Thompson following a U.S. corner kick and Bradley hit the goalkeeper and the post on a 57th-minute piledriver. But the U.S., finally playing the fluid, cohesive, proactive soccer everyone had been waiting for since the tournament started, couldn’t make it count.
“I told them at halftime as well, just keep playing like that, you’re going to get more opportunities and sooner or later you’re going to put them in the net and we’re going to turn this game around,” Klinsmann said.
“We combined really well, created tons of chances. It just wasn’t to be,” Guzan said. “The ball just didn’t fall our way today. You can call it what you want. But at the end of the day, it’s about scoring goals. It’s about scoring more goals than the other team and we didn’t do that.”
There won’t be much time for an autopsy, and Klinsmann's mandate and position remain secure. There’s a bronze-medal game to play Saturday, friendlies in September, the Confederations Cup playoff in October and the start of 2018 World Cup qualifying soon thereafter. Klinsmann once again defended his defense on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, Bradley and Guzan insisted that the defeat wasn’t an indictment, no matter how crushing, historic or unexpected it was. They will move forward.
“I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction,” Guzan said. “This one game doesn’t make us a bad team. It doesn’t set us 20 steps backward.”
“It’s very disappointing, very frustrating,” Bradley said. “But again, we have no divine right to be in the final. We certainly didn’t think that. We knew from the get-go that this was going to be an extremely difficult tournament. It was. And we’ll continue to move ourselves forward, to push, to improve.”