ATLANTA — The Georgia Dome isn’t long for this world, but it still boasts plenty of big-game allure.
The imposing, 23-year-old stadium stands at the edge of a downtown district that includes the Centennial Olympic Park, multiple museums, CNN and Philips Arena. It has hosted Olympic events (including basketball), two Super Bowls and four Final Fours (three men, one women). On one side, there’s the Atlanta skyline. And on the other, a new stadium rises adjacent to it. Now a massive concrete skeleton, the unnamed, $1.4 billion retractable-roof arena will open in 2017 and house the Atlanta Falcons, MLS expansion team Atlanta United and, presumably, more must-see events. The setting feels altogether big-time.
The 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup often has felt like a bit of a rush job. Only three days separated the group-stage matches, meaning the participating teams were leaving a city almost as soon as they’d arrived. Games were played as part of doubleheaders. Covering the event is chaotic. The U.S. opened camp in Nashville, then played games outside Dallas, outside Boston, in Kansas City, Kans., and Baltimore before flying to Atlanta on Sunday.
Finally, here in this growing soccer city, there’s a sense that an often turbulent and unpredictable tournament is reaching maturity. The pretenders are gone and Wednesday’s semifinal doubleheader, which will be played inside the sold-out Georgia Dome, is approaching. The four surviving teams have pedigree. The U.S. (3–0–1) is the reigning champion and has won the tournament five times. Its semifinal opponent, Jamaica (3–0–1), is the Caribbean champion and the only other team to win at least three games at this Gold Cup.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Tuesday that Jamaica “totally deserves to be in these semifinals.”
Wednesday’s late game pits Mexico (2–0–2), a six-time Gold Cup winner and nine-time CONCACAF champion, against 2013 runner-up Panama (0–0–4).
CONCACAF will never be confused for Europe or South America. But this feels big, and Klinsmann and his captain, Michael Bradley, clearly sensed it at Tuesday’s pregame press conference.
“It’s getting exciting,” Klinsmann said. “It’s getting exciting playing here in front of a sold-out crowd tomorrow night, the semifinals, and getting closer to our goal … We have these two games [remaining] and you want to stand out and you want to create something special."
Added Bradley, who hasn’t lifted a trophy as a pro (he was suspended during the 2007 Gold Cup final and has been shut out with club and country since): “Semifinal speaks for itself. Over the course of your career as a player, the chance to lift a trophy doesn’t come around every day ... I think everybody on all four teams is sensing a big opportunity here.”
If the U.S. wins Wednesday and again in Sunday's final in Philadelphia, it will qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. For the Americans, that’s a big deal. The quadrennial eight-team tournament offers the only opportunity to play European and South American powers in official competition outside the World Cup. Klinsmann desperately wants to be there. If the U.S. fails, it will meet the new Gold Cup champion in an October playoff to determine CONCACAF’s berth at the Confederations Cup. Also at stake for the Americans: the chance to tie Mexico with six Gold Cup titles and, perhaps, an opportunity to defeat their rivals in the final for only the second time.
But first, Jamaica. While Reggae Boyz coach Winfried Schäfer was making David and Goliath references on Tuesday, Klinsmann and Bradley spoke with nothing but respect for an improving team that still has beaten the U.S. only once.
“It’s an organized team," said Bradley, who’s played every minute of all 12 U.S. games this year. “It’s a very good team. Again, we know them well. They have a unique blend of organization and discipline, but also athleticism and guys who, especially on their own, can use their speed and their quality to cause real trouble.”
Said Klinsmann: “It’s a very difficult opponent—a very tough team to play ... They probably are the best prepared team in this competition because of how they structured everything with [last month’s] Copa América. They have about 14 players who went down to Chile as their core, so they’re in a full flow. Most of the players play in England, some in the Premier League, a couple more in the English Championship and a few more we know obviously from MLS. So it’s a quality team, very difficult to play.”
Klinsmann complimented his counterpart, a German who played with U.S. assistant Berti Vogts at Borussia Mönchengladbach in the 1970s.
“He’s very charismatic, very energetic,” Klinsmann said of Schäfer. “He’s very, very competitive. He will tell his players everything possible in order to make things miserable for us, and that’s his job.”
At this point, with U.S. striker Clint Dempsey leading the tournament with six goals (no one else has more than three), Bradley in good form and midfielders Gyasi Zardes and Alejandro Bedoya emerging as consistent threats, any American misery likely will happen in back. There, the schedule, some uncertainty and John Brooks’s quarterfinal suspension has forced Klinsmann into considerable shuffling. Brooks, Ventura Alvarado and Timmy Chandler have come under scrutiny and four-time World Cup vet DaMarcus Beasley was called up as a reinforcement. A calf issue kept him out of Friday’s quarterfinal win over Cuba.
“It’s a very good learning process for everybody involved who’s ever played in the back line,” Klinsmann said. “This entire team, from game to game, we see them getting more into this tournament and a better flow, which we all knew because we had just one week of preparation there. These kind of games give those players in particular, young defenders in the back line, a huge amount of experience … We see a lot of talent in our back line. There will always be the calculation that there might be here and there a mistake, and they might get criticized for that or we get criticized, and that’s totally fine. At the end of the day, it comes down to the results you come away with … We see a very positive progress here and no matter who steps on the field [Wednesday] night, we’ll get the job done.”
Indeed, that’s been a theme throughout this tournament. It’s a continental championship and only results matter. When asked to grade the Americans’ performance through the first two games, which turned out to be a lot tougher than many expected, Bradley said, “I would grade it with six points.”
On Tuesday, he said, “We’ll be ready to give it everything we have and do everything possible to make sure we’re in the final.”
That’s big-game talk, and sitting inside the Georgia Dome, Bradley had a sense of the size and stakes of the moment.
“The opportunity we have in front of us is not lost on us,” he said. “Representing the United States in big tournaments is an honor. It’s incredibly special. And for us, the chance to step on the field in a stadium like this in a semifinal of a big tournament, there’s not much more you can ask for.”