Thanks to goals from Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris, the United States Men’s National Team beat the Reggae Boys from Jamaica 2-1 in the 2017 Gold Cup final on Wednesday. This became the sixth time the team has won the competition, one behind Mexico for the all time lead. Team morale is high, Michael Bradley walked away with the golden ball for best player, and American Outlaws around are celebrating. However, there are many who feel this win isn’t significant whatsoever and that the team gains little from this.
Many point to the fact that the teams the United States played were much weaker than ours. The 12 team tournament consisted of numerous teams the U.S. should beat. Their biggest threat Mexico brought in a B team after the main team competed in the Confederations Cup and Costa Rica, the next biggest threat, left off some of the regulars and lost others to injury. The U.S. was a heavy favorite even when they had their experimental team in the group stage and the gap only widened when Head Coach Bruce Arena used the Gold Cup’s Unique rule of allowing six changes to the team from the squads preliminary roster. He brought in usual starters like Bradley, Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Darlington Nagbe to help push the team to the trophy, which drew criticism from many in the media. People were more anxious to see some of the new players like Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe get a chance in the knockout stage and winning with these “A” players meant nothing to developing the team.
No matter how you chalk it up though, this was a big success for the USMNT and here are some reasons why.
Arena getting to Shrink his Pool for Russia
Going into this tournament it was pretty clear that Bruce was going to evaluate numerous faces to see who deserves a spot on the World Cup Qualifying rosters and the squad (hopefully) going to Russia for the World Cup. This meant evaluating players who might fit in, but also seeing who shouldn’t be on the radar come next May. After all, the reason he was hired was to get the team qualified for the World Cup and have a strong showing there as well. Not as much to introduce young talent. Therefore, while he included some young guys, he also looked at many players that are further into their careers and were perhaps never given a chance by former coach Jurgen Klinsmann. This included players like Bill Hamid, Matt Hedges, Eric Lichaj, and Dax McCarty. The young players he looked at such as Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Morris are guys who have been on some of Arena’s earlier squads but got larger roles at the tournament.
While the competition wasn’t at its highest, the tournament showed the players who carried a cause for consideration and also exposed players who should not be included. Hedges, for example, was one of the more highly anticipated players coming into the camp being the 2-time MLS Defender of the year, but struggled mightily in performances against minnows Martinique and El Salvador. His poor showing will be noted by Arena and considered when thinking about future call ups. Meanwhile Rowe, Morris, and Matt Besler were three of the biggest beneficiaries of the tournament. Rowe had a goal and an assist and despite being swapped out before the knockout rounds. He showed he deserves to get chances with the National Team. Morris scored a tournament high three goals including the decisive strike in the Final and Besler rebounded from an iffy opener versus Panama to be the best defender the U.S. had this tournament. With many players seeing their stocks shift, it’ll be interesting to see how Arena picks his future rosters and who he covets.
Dempsey the Super Sub
While analyzing the players was very important for Arena, the biggest takeaway from this tournament had to be Dempsey coming off the bench and embracing the role as a super sub. Despite starting in the quarterfinal versus El Salvador, he came off the bench against both Costa Rica and Jamaica and significantly changed both games. Dempsey tallied a goal and two assists in about 65 minutes as a substitute between both games and changed the dynamic to help the U.S. emerge victorious in both games. Most importantly however, he embraced coming off the bench rather than showing any signs of disgust or bitterness.
Dempsey remains as one of the only game changers the national team and many have been surprised at his ability to adapt to his new role. If he’s able to make this his own, it can give the U.S. a major advantage come World Cup Qualifying and even next summer. When the U.S. can use Dempsey as the super sub they’ve never had, a difference maker who’s fresh and ready to contribute for 20-30 minutes. This could give the U.S. a real difference off the bench, rather than the habit of bringing on attacking players who may be athletic and fresh, but lack the quality of play then the player they replaced. If he keeps delivering, we’ll look back at these games as the coming out party.
Momentum for upcoming WCQ
When Arena took over back in December, the team was in a state of turmoil and negativity. The locker room was broken, players weren’t as eager to trust the coach after what happened with Klinsmann, and the winning mentality was dead. Arena had to come in to not just win games, but rebuild this team. After winning the Gold Cup, it seems like the Arena has reinstalled these components. The team has gone on a 14 match unbeaten streak to start Arena’s second tenure and despite early struggles, it still won the games they were supposed to win in the tournament. The players commemorate Arena for his role on the team. Players’ reactions in practice, on the field, and even the Instagram story posts show the team has gotten close together with each camp since last January. Winning this tournament helped restore the confident and winning culture in his U.S. teams that has been lacking ever since the last Gold Cup in 2015.
And by the way they won those last two games, they can carry that valuable momentum into their WCQ matches in September. Costa Rica is a must win situation for the U.S. as they are clinging to the last automatic qualifying spot by one point over Panama and can also close the three point gap with the Ticos for second place. Despite this look