SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The U.S. national team was forced to work, sweat and worry for nearly 90 minutes Wednesday night, and as the evening dragged on at Levi’s Stadium, the CONCACAF Gold Cup final began to look like the sort of game that might slip through the Americans’ fingers. Their dominance just didn’t translate to the scoreboard.
Then, in the 88th minute, the championship breakthrough finally came. It was Jordan Morris who found it, pouncing on a deflection in the Jamaican penalty area and rifling a shot into the upper right corner. The goal lifted the USA to a hard-fought, 2-1, win over the Reggae Boyz and a sixth (and deserved) continental title.
Here are three thoughts from a test the Americans passed late.
Relief, redemption for Morris
Morris is a forward whose defending, or lack thereof, could’ve cost the USA the game. He lost Jamaica’s Je-Vaughn Watson on a 50th-minute corner kick, and the New England Revolution midfielder’s ensuing volley erased Jozy Altidore’s opener and tied the game at 1-1. The lead was lost, and one more mistake against an organized opponent dangerous on the counterattack could have ruined the tournament.
It would’ve been a tough fate for Morris, who’s overcome a difficult and frustrating start to this sophomore MLS campaign in Seattle to show well at moments during this Gold Cup. Much of that good showing has owed to his perseverance. He persisted during a rough outing in the group stage against Martinique and recovered to score twice in the USA’s 3-2 win. The same was the case Wednesday, although this time he had a mistake to atone for as well. The American attack wasn’t moving much through him, and his role changed once Clint Dempsey entered as a 55th-minute sub. But Morris remained alert, and when Dempsey knocked down a header by a Jamaican defender, his Sounders teammate was there to hammer the ball home.
So that’s three Gold Cup goals this month (tying him for the tournament lead), and MLS, continental and NCAA championships in the past two years. The kid’s a winner.
The Americans were right: This was hard
They’d warned us, but when the favorite says nice things about the underdog, there’s always going to be a chance they’re doing so simply to avoid bulletin board material. In the case of this Gold Cup final, however, the American assessment of the Jamaican challenge was spot on.
This Reggae Boyz team was not the one that crashed out of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying with only one win in six games. New coach Theodore Whitmore, in his second international stint like U.S. counterpart Bruce Arena, already has succeeded in crafting a team more potent than the sum of its parts. His starting lineup featured seven MLS players, two USL players and Montego Bay United winger Owayne Gordon, who was a constant problem on the U.S. right and should be playing at a much higher level.
Jamaica fell behind to Altidore’s first-half free kick and lost star goalkeeper Andre Blake to an injured finger in only the 23rd. But there was no break following the bend, and Whitmore’s team—which often played with five across the back and eight behind the ball—remained tight, disciplined and composed.
“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.”
And they nearly pulled off the stunner, coming close to taking the lead on a Darren Mattocks shot from close range in the 79th. Ultimately, however, sustained U.S. possession and the moment of timely quality form Morris proved to be the difference. But there should be no question that this Gold Cup title somehow means less because of the level of opposition in the final. Jamaica earned its place and made the USA earn it.
This is a triumph for Arena
Listen to his players words in recent weeks and months, and it’s easy to get a sense of the improvement in national team atmosphere under Arena.
“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,” said captain Michael Bradley, who was awarded the golden ball as Gold Cup MVP.
Everything Arena has touched has turned to gold. His 14-game unbeaten streak to start his second tenure is a program record, he has the Americans back in the thick of the World Cup qualifying race and his roster management throughout this tournament, during which he’s learned a ton about the available player pool while building a team that eventually won it all, is a testament to his ability to read players and relationships and cultivate team chemistry.
It’s Arena’s third Gold Cup title—he also won in 2002 and ’05, but this one says a lot more about him as a coach, and demonstrates that the U.S. is in the right hands heading toward the World Cup.