SANTA CLARA, Calif.—There’s always a hefty chunk of nerves and anticipation preceding a final. They’re the matches young players dream about and the ones for which pros prepare during hundreds of repetitive and anonymous practices. Finals are—if you play to win the game—what the game really is about.
So it’s tempting ahead of Wednesday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup decider between the USA and Jamaica here at Levi’s Stadium to simply look forward—to focus on form and tactics and to make the next 90 minutes about nothing more than the next 90 minutes. But this 14th Gold Cup tournament, and the route the Americans took to Wednesday’s final, have been far from standard. The past three weeks, the past eight months and for some, the past decade, have shaped the narrative and will influence the approach and emotions of the men who take the field.
It starts on a personal level. Consider Jozy Altidore, the veteran forward who’s already the third leading scorer in U.S. national team history. Too few of those goals have come during the summer, however, as the 27-year-old been ravaged by injury during recent tournaments. He’s yet to win a trophy for his country. Altidore’s long-time friend Michael Bradley, the USA captain who’s now a teammate at Toronto FC as well, had his own rough run of luck in finals until lifting the Canadian Championship last month. Clint Dempsey is making the most of what seems like a second chance at an international career after recovering from a heart ailment. Tim Howard was there in 2011 at the Rose Bowl, where Mexico defeated the USA, 4-2, in a classic that still echoes. So was Eric Lichaj, who then was removed for the national team picture and is only now getting another long, legitimate look.
Then there’s the group dynamic, starting with the two World Cup qualifying losses in November and former coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s subsequent sacking. Bruce Arena re-entered and quickly reset the tone, creating an atmosphere in which his increasingly comfortable and confident players were able to trust his approach for this Gold Cup. The plans were unorthodox: Start 22 of 23 players during the three group-stage games, then bring in five veterans for the knockout rounds who’d be expected to slip in seamlessly. Those are the sorts of wholesale lineup and roster changes that don’t typically result in championship consistency. But Arena has pushed the right buttons, gone undefeated in his first 13 games in charge and led the USA to a record 10th Gold Cup final. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
“We started [the Gold Cup] to try to win the thing so its not like we were every going to think that what we were doing wasn’t going to work, or else we wouldn’t have done it,” Arena told reporters here on Monday. “You make one change and you’re concerned about it, let alone 11. 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.”
And he had buy-in from locker room leaders because of the chemistry and trust that’s developed over time. Even Dempsey, who fought for every minute like it was his last, even before his 2016 illness, appears to appreciate the potential the “super-sub” role that decided Saturday’s semifinal against Costa Rica.
“He’s been really good with his selection and the players that he’s decided to play in games. He’s been undefeated,” Dempsey said. “So all I can go out there and do is make sure that I’m putting myself in the best position [so] if I do get called upon, that I can go in and impact the game. The most important thing is the team winning. It’s not who plays. So hopefully we can go out there and win the Cup.”
Bradley, who’s known Arena since he was a toddler, elaborated following his team’s Levi’s Stadium walk-through on Tuesday.
“From the beginning, there was a real sense within the group that this is what it's supposed to feel like,” the captain said. “We had let ourselves down at the end of last year, there was no two ways about that. Obviously, Jurgen pays the price in terms of losing his job. But there was more to it than that. We understood that. We knew that we had to look in the mirror and also know that we had let ourselves down on a few too many occasions.
“When Bruce and his staff came in, in January, the tone they set from the beginning in terms of creating an environment where now everybody feels a part of it, everybody’s all in, creating an environment where players are challenged and pushed to take big roles in terms of what goes on every day, this part has been great,” Bradley continued. “I certainly appreciate the trust and the confidence he’s shown in me in this stretch and for any player, when you have a coach who gives you that, you want nothing more than to repay that back every single day and ultimately in the biggest moments.”
Wednesday is one of those moments, whether or not conversations among the press and fans suggest otherwise. Trophies are hard to come by, finals are scarce and careers are short. Not a single member of the American camp expressed any concern that a potential sixth major title in the program’s 100 years might be worth a bit less because rival Mexico stumbled in the semi. Teams that have won five trophies in a century-plus don’t get to debate the aesthetics. That’s for the Brazils of the world. Plus, Jamaica earned its way to Santa Clara. The rugged and robust Reggae Boyz, runners-up two years ago when the USA crashed out early, have yielded just two goals in five Gold Cup games.
“We’re both in points in our careers, where ultimately we want to win,” Bradley said of himself and Altidore. “We don’t care about much else—what people say, what people write, who scores, who doesn’t score, who gets the credit, who doesn’t. None of it matters to either of us. We want to play on teams that win and we want to play on teams that win trophies, and tomorrow’s another chance for us.”
Jamaica represents a real hurdle. The Reggae Boyz are in a second straight final but were eliminated early from World Cup qualifying. Former midfielder and manager Theodore Whitmore returned to the team last year and has helped build a side that matches in defensive discipline what it’s always offered in danger on the break. Anchored by MLSers like Darren Mattocks, Je-Vaughn Watson and Shaun Francis, Jamaica went 1-0-1 against Mexico this month and was a deserving winner on Sunday.
“They’re a different kind of Jamaican team than we’ve seen in the past,” Arena said this week. “They have a lot of discipline. They are very strong defensively and they’re hard to play against. That, to me, is not what you typically see out of a Jamaican team.”
That juxtaposition of a team 90 minutes from the CONCACAF title that couldn’t finish among the top six in World Cup qualifying is a fitting one for a tournament that’s been a bit odd, even by this quirky confederation’s high standards. The golden boot leaders heading into the final are a 16-year-old Canadian (Alphonso Davies) and a forward from a country of 390,000 that isn’t even a FIFA member (Martinique’s Kévin Parsemain).
Honduras got to within a goal of a quarterfinal shootout against Mexico without actually scoring one of its own in four games. It owed its place to the bizarre decision by French Guiana to play ineligible French veteran Florent Malouda, which led to the forfeit that sent Los Catrachos to the knockout stage at Martinique’s expense. That was a shame for Martinique, which overcame a two-goal deficit against the USA during the group stage. Then there was the biting and nipple twisting the Americans faced against El Salvador, and CONCACAF’s quixotic effort to convince fans to stop yelling homophobic slurs during goal kicks. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio was jeered by El Tri supporters upon landing in Mexico City, even though he was suspended for the duration of the tournament. Dempsey was cheered when he tied Landon Donovan’s all-time U.S. scoring record in the closing minutes of the semifinal.
There’s been no lack of narrative during this Gold Cup, and no dearth of context preceding this final. Jamaica (3-0-2) can become the first non-North American team to win the competition since CONCACAF relaunched and rebranded its flagship event in 1991. The USA (4-0-1) has a chance to build on the momentum generated in the past eight months. A win would provide some championship confidence to new players who’ve made a statement, while offering a lasting memory and some priceless validation to those who’ve stuck it out.
That’s why finals are about much more than 90 minutes. They’re certainly about more than who might have been playing for other teams or missing out. These games are about reflection, redefinition and legacy.
“This means the world to me. I haven’t had the best of luck the past four or five years. The opponent in the final didn’t matter. I had this tournament circled on my calendar, and to be able to get there and see it through with no hiccups, I'm really excited to have the opportunity to play for a trophy,” Altidore told SI.com on Tuesday.
“This is what we all play for—to win things, to have these type of memories, to play in atmospheres hopefully like tomorrow that will be special," he continued. "For us, this is what we’re all about, getting to games that mean you’re a champion at the end of it. Everybody’s excited. We can’t wait to kick off.”