The US national team found its footing after four games of rotation and experimentation—as well a potential super sub for next summer’s World Cup—and reclaimed its customary place in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final with a dominating 2-0 defeat of Costa Rica.
The Americans’ streak of five straight appearances in the continental title match was derailed two years ago in a semifinal loss to Jamaica that marked the beginning of former coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s onerous end. His replacement, Bruce Arena, made it clear from the start that this summer’s Gold Cup was about testing the depth of the American player pool. Upcoming qualifiers in September in October must take precedence.
But once the knockout rounds began, Arena placed more importance on a sixth Gold Cup title, and the veterans he called in to help carry the USA there have come up big. In Saturday’s semifinal outside Dallas, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey scored the second-half goals, Tim Howard was flawless in net and Michael Bradley orchestrated his squad’s finest midfield performance of the competition.
The Americans (4–0–1) were deserving winners and now will have an extra day’s rest before meeting Mexico or Jamaica in the July 26 final. Here are three thoughts on the game that got them there.
Record-tying Dempsey the super sub
He’s 34 years old, recovered from a heart condition that sidelined him last year and has admitted he’s not always going to be an every minute of every game player going forward. And Saturday’s game wasn’t the first indication that the surgical, timely deployment of Dempsey may be a big part of the national team’s future.
Last month, Dempsey came on in the second half of a Cascadia Cup clash between his Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers and silenced Providence Park with a 94th-minute equalizer. Asked about potentially playing that role at next summer’s World Cup, he told Fox, “You have to say, 'All right, if I do play, am I fit enough that I can go 90 minutes nonstop? Or is it, 'Do I put in a 60-minute shift, 70-minute shift and get subbed? Or do you come on maybe later in the game when everybody's tired and try to get goals?'
“So being a goalscorer, that does appeal to me, that I could come on in a game and change it. I would be open to it.”
He did more than change the game Saturday. After coming on in the 66th minute for Paul Arriola, he won it. The USA had been bossing the Costa Ricans in midfield but had difficulty pulling the well organized, compact Ticos apart in the offensive third. Jordan Morris had hit the post in the opening seconds and Altidore wasted a good look later in the first half, but the game settled after that and the Americans couldn’t break through
Dempsey’s entry destroyed Costa Rica’s shape. He pushed the energetic Morris wide and filled the space that had been empty behind the US forwards and in front of Bradley and Kellyn Acosta. In the 72nd, Dempsey made the most of that space, between two Costa Ricans on the dribble before slipping a perfectly weighted through ball to Altidore in the left channel. The Toronto FC forward hadn’t scored an international goal in 10 months and his 15th-minute decision to pass rather than shoot could’ve been an indication of uncertainty. Altidoire didn’t hesitate on Dempsey’s ball, however. It was that good.
But Dempsey is a goal scorer at heart, and in the 82nd he drove a free kick to the right of the Costa Rican wall and inside the near post for his 57th career national team goal. He’s now tied atop the all-time list with Landon Donovan, who was in the Fox announcers’ booth at AT&T Stadium on Saturday.
“To come back from two heart procedures and being able to still play at this level, living a dream, so I’m happy,” Dempsey said following the game. He’ll likely continue living that dream next summer, perhaps in a different but very dangerous sort of role.
Howard comes up big again
Arena reminded the press before Saturday’s game that his team was the highest scoring side at this Gold Cup. The chemistry and cohesion wasn’t always there—he started 27 players across the first four games—but “we’re not that bad in the attack,” Arena stressed.
Still, they may not be headed to the final if not for Howard, who at 38 appears to have re-cemented his status as the No. 1 keeper. His save in the opening moments of last week’s quarterfinal defeat of El Salvador was critical, and on Saturday he once again was outstanding when called upon. And that can be even tougher when you’re not called upon that frequently.
Howard hadn’t had much to do when Ticos star Bryan Ruiz held off Bradley in center midfield and fed striker Marco Ureña in the 37th. The San Jose Earthquakes striker cut inside Omar Gonzalez and had Howard at his mercy, but the veteran American dropped and made a spectacular save. In the 71st, Howard denied Ureña again from close range.
Gonzalez was perhaps the one US player who struggled on Saturday. Ureña was a handful. Darlington Nagbe had some bright moments but also some wasteful ones, Morris and Arriola ran hard and Acosta picked his spots well and deferred to Bradley and then Dempsey when necessary. Overall, the spacing was far better than its been throughout the tournament and the US looked much more comfortable in possession. In the end, it took a couple moments of class from the country’s top players to win it—Dempsey and Altidore will get the headlines, but Howard was vitally important as well.
The USA is now the Gold Cup favorite
Arena held Dempsey out for the first hour and switched out his outside backs. And there likely will be more shuffling on Wednesday in Santa Clara. But it’s clear that this team is getting better as the tournament goes, which is the idea. And now, with Mexico absent its full-strength squad and still looking for its own identity after a narrow quarterfinal win over Honduras, the Americans must be considered the Gold Cup favorite.
The USA is 8–0–5 under Arena, and before the game Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez said even he noticed the difference between this American squad and the one his Ticos thrashed by four goals last November.
"Before you felt there was a certain tension there because of what was discussed before regarding problems with Klinsmann,” he told reporters in Dallas. “It seemed like a tense environment. Now the environment I see with the US is a happier environment, an environment where the players are working harder, where they’re maybe having more fun.”
While Ramirez looks forward to a World Cup qualifying rematch in September, the USA should feel confident heading into the final. Its forwards are finding the net, Bradley and Howard are sharp and Arena clearly is pushing the right buttons. The Americans will be motivated by the prospect of winning a trophy, getting back at Jamaica for that 2015 upset or at Mexico for last year’s setback in Columbus, and eager to head toward qualifying on a high. This Gold Cup has had several interesting twists and turns but at the moment, as Dempsey showed Saturday, this US team seems to have a clear idea of how to finish.