SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The USA can call itself CONCACAF champion again, at least for the next two years. And if FIFA holds a Confederations Cup in 2021 (it’s not a certainty because the leeway organizers had to move Qatar’s 2022 World Cup to the less-blistering winter may not be available the year before), the Americans have punched half a ticket. Veterans like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore scratched a lingering international itch, while the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta and Jorge Villafaña earned some pedigree.
The Americans deserve a celebration, thought it must be brief. The two-game hole they fell into at the start of World Cup qualifying makes this month’s triumph taste a bit sweeter. It also cast a shadow over the tournament. This Gold Cup could never be about just this Gold Cup. In five weeks, qualifying starts up again and even the slightest stumble there will put a trip to Russia back into jeopardy and render Wednesday’s triumph almost moot.
“We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go,” coach Bruce Arena said after his team deservedly defeated Jamaica, 2-1, in Wednesday’s final here at Levi’s Stadium. “We’re a long way from qualifying for the World Cup and that's the objective, for sure. We've got to evaluate this performance in July and the next couple of weeks, and I have to select a roster for our World Cup qualifying. Then we have to win some games in September and October."
The USA defeated Costa Rica relatively easily in the Gold Cup semifinals. But the Ticos team that shows up to Red Bull Arena on September 1 almost certainly will be stronger. Arena will have access to his full arsenal as well, as those European players who missed the Gold Cup will be available. He said Wednesday that it’ll be “challenging” finding the right blend after the full squad has spent almost three months apart. But in his favor, he’ll have the a much deeper knowledge of his player pool, a confident group of CONCACAF champions and some reliable trends in form.
Here is a look at a few takeaways, other than the trophy, from the Gold Cup:
Vaunted veterans cement their stature
It’s tough to imagine the likes of Tim Howard, Bradley or Clint Dempsey still having something to prove, and certainly their involvement in the upcoming qualifiers never was in question as long as they’re healthy. Yet each of them, along with Altidore, somehow managed to enhance his stature during the Gold Cup. And they did so on the field and off.
“In the locker room they're such great guys that calm us down,” Morris said following Wednesday’s final, during which he careened from goat to hero. “They've been part of those big moments before, so for us it's learning from them and trying to just be calm in those big moments and they really help with that.”
Howard didn’t put a foot wrong. Bradley was imperious. The Americans’ midfield organization and spacing improved dramatically once the captain arrived ahead of the quarterfinals, and he performed so well, he was named tournament MVP despite missing half of it. Bradley was comfortable as both a No. 6 and in a more mobile role alongside Acosta in the semifinal and final, and the USA didn’t yield a Gold Cup goal from open play during the 270-plus minutes he was on the field.
Meanwhile, Dempsey’s denouement has been officially delayed. He may be 34 and enjoying a new lease on his soccer life following a heart ailment that sidelined him last year, but the desperate, making-up-for-lost time approach he’s had his entire career looks like it’ll continue to pay dividends. Dempsey has always played like a man delayed, desperate to squeeze the most out of every minute on the field. Arena rolled the dice this month and guessed that reducing those minutes, rather than giving reason Dempsey to sulk, might help him become even more efficient.
It worked. Dempsey came on as a second-half sub in both the semi and the final. In the first game, he set up Altidore’s game-winner then scored on a beautiful free kick in the closing moments. Acosta is a two-way midfielder rather than a playmaker and was more than willing to defer to Dempsey in that space behind the forwards the latter likes to exploit. It made all the difference against Costa Rica.
In Wednesday’s final, Dempsey replaced Acosta and acted as more of an attacking free agent in a game the USA was dominating. He nearly scored the winner—and the goal that would’ve lifted him past Landon Donovan on the all-time U.S. goal scoring list—in the 75th, but his sharp header was saved brilliantly by Jamaican substitute Dwayne Miller. Then in the 88th, he helped steer the ball toward Morris for the clincher.
“I'm older and I appreciate it more," Dempsey said of his third Gold Cup championship. "I know that there's not a lot more opportunities to win cups. To say I've won three is something that I'll remember, and to be able to say that I've tied the record during the process—three games to chip in with a goal and three assists—I’m proud of that.”
Of course Dempsey’s counting. That’s what makes him so productive.
Said Arena, “Our older players are unbelievable. The passion they have for this program from our oldest player, now Tim Howard , to our captain Michael Bradley, to Clint Dempsey ... Clint Dempsey is going to do whatever is necessary for this team to be successful so this is encouraging stuff.”
Arena has his veterans playing well and buying in, and that should pave the way for the rest of the squad this fall.
Newer players help establish reliable depth
Qualifying for a World Cup and doing well once you get there also requires answering some key questions behind the core. And the Gold Cup helped Arena do that in a number of ways.
“This was a really good experience for me and the players to get to know each other and move our program forward,” Arena said.
The manager was clear that Acosta, the homegrown FC Dallas star, needed additional international seasoning. He’s far from a first-choice starter and has aspects of his game he needs to clean up. Nagbe is ahead of him if Arena has his full complement of outside midfielders, and Alejandro Bedoya remains a versatile, arguably indispensable asset. But Acosta is smart and unselfish, and he demonstrated the sort of potential he has a complementary piece in the way he played off Bradley (and Dempsey in the semifinal). He’ll get more opportunities.
Morris did more than net the trophy-winner. He made it clear he has the intangibles to succeed at higher levels even as he works to round out his game. The story of the high expectations and slow start to his rookie season in Seattle, which ended with a 2016 MLS Cup title, is well known. He’s struggled early in 2017 as well, and there are players who might endure that slump, see Dom Dwyer score in his first two internationals and then yield an equalizer in a tournament final and crumble. Morris didn’t, however. His perseverance through an indifferent hour against Martinique during the group stage led to two second-half goals, and his recovery from his defensive miscue Wednesday night will become the stuff of U.S. soccer legend. Add all that to his versatility—he can play high and stretch a defense or attack from wider positions—and Morris is in great shape to continue his rise for country as well as club.
Nagbe clearly has a fan in Arena, who’s lauded the Portland midfielder at every opportunity. Perhaps he reminds the manager a bit of his former Virginia and national team captain Claudio Reyna—on a relative scale—thanks to his ability to keep the ball, facilitate possession and influence team speed and shape. Neither is the assertive, game-breaking attacker some probably hoped for, but Nagbe is still relatively new to the international game and has a significant upside. He’ll play a role going forward.
Gyasi Zardes is another player whom Arena favors. The LA Galaxy midfielder/forward doesn’t have Nagbe’s technique or comfort on the ball, but he makes things happen in the attacking third in a way his Portland counterpart doesn’t. Zardes is an agent of offensive chaos, and that’s not a bad thing to be able to bring off the bench. On Wednesday, he hit the cross that led to Morris’s goal.
Arena lays a defensive foundation
Arena didn’t need to see a ton from his center backs during the Gold Cup. Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez will remain in the rotation, and the latter’s improved performance in the final after a more difficult outing against Cost Rica was a good sign. They’re veterans, they’re established and with Geoff Cameron and John Brooks also available for the qualifiers, Arena can take comfort in having four World Cup-level defenders to deploy. His successor can delve deeper into the potential of Matt Hedges, Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers and others.
The bigger questions had been on the flanks, where former coach Jurgen Klinsmann consistently struggled to find answers. This month, Arena found some depth. Eric Lichaj had some good moments in his long-awaited return to regular international duty and if he didn’t do enough to unseat Graham Zusi as the No. 2 behind DeAndre Yedlin, he at least pushed the Sporting Kansas City veteran and gave Arena another option. Jorge Villafaña hasn’t been perfect on the left, but he also hasn't done enough to lose the job and, at times, he shows the sort of dynamism and range that makes him a likely first choice. Fabian Johnson remains a fallback option.
There is no settled back four, but there are several combinations that could work. And that represents progress from last fall.
Plus, there’s more depth in the program if Arena wants to look for it, from European players like Timmy Chandler and Tim Ream to potential January camp invitees such as Justin Morrow, Greg Garza, Steve Birnbaum and Tim Parker. That camp also may represent an opportunity for Bill Hamid, who blanked Nicaragua in the Gold Cup’s group stage finale, to make his case for a spot on the flight to Russia. It’s a flight that now, thanks to progress on multiple fronts, seems more likely to happen.