Gold Cup Final Preview
Four Storylines to Monitor in U.S.-Jamaica Cup Final
July 24, 2017
IN THE END, CONCACAF will not get the final it wanted. Mexico fell to Jamaica on Sunday night in Pasadena, so it will be the Reggae Boyz who will face off against the United States in Wednesday’s final at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
The United States and Mexico used to meet fairly regularly in the Gold Cup Final—including three successive times in 2007, 2009, and 2011. The meeting in 2011, however, was the last time the region’s top two teams—and bitter rivals—have met in the Gold Cup and CONCACAF will now have to hope 2019 will break the streak.
That said, this final could turn out to be a good one. This Gold Cup had been lackluster through the quarterfinals but both semifinals quality soccer and plenty of drama.
Jamaica earned its upset win over Mexico with a fantastic effort. Goalkeeper Andre Blake came up with a series of big saves and is one of the best players in the entire tournament. But Jamaica created several chances, forced turnovers, and played like the better team for long stretches.
The United States is coming off its best game of the tournament—a 2-0 win over Costa Rica—that featured solid all-around play and several outstanding performances. Here are some of the dominant storylines for the regional championship.
Tim Howard vs. Andre Blake
Since joining the Yanks after the group stages, Tim Howard has been flawless for the United States. He has yet to concede a goal and he responded well at several key moments. Against El Salvador, he bailed out Eric Lichaj after a bad turnover. Against Costa Rica, he made two very critical close-range saves on Marco Ureña.
Now 38, Tim Howard is approaching the end of his career. On the other side you have Andre Blake who is in his prime at 26 and is living up to the expectations placed on him when he was the first overall pick in the 2014 MLS draft.
Last year he was chosen as the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year (although Philadelphia crashed out of the playoffs in the first round). At the Gold Cup, he has been a difference-maker.
Beating either Howard or Blake will be a very difficult challenge and these two players will have a huge say as to which team lifts the Gold Cup Wednesday night.
Does Clint Dempsey Have a New Role?
Clint Dempsey came off the bench on Saturday and completely changed the game. He assisted on Jozy Altidore’s first goal and then scored the game’s second, his 57th career strike, tying him with Landon Donovan as the United States' all-time leading scorer. Dempsey can move past Donovan on the big stage of the Gold Cup final.
It was not surprising that Dempsey come off the bench against Jamaica: Given his age and health issues, starting him three times in a week is a bit much. We should expect to see something similar in next year's World Cup—assuming the Yanks qualify—because the games come quickly and Dempsey will be 35-years-old. As his minutes decline, however, Dempsey seems to understand the role based on how he was able to change the game against Costa Rica.
“It's always difficult three days after playing 90 minutes to start and try play another 90 minutes at 34,” Dempsey said. “Bruce told me that he knew the game was going to be difficult but in the second half it would open up. He thought I could be someone to come on and make a difference. He was right.”
That doesn’t mean Dempsey’s days as a starter are over. He might get the nod on Wednesday. But he could be a great weapon off the bench, the kind of player opposing defenders don't want to see as their legs start to get heavier.
“It's definitely a luxury to bring in a guy who is looking to break the record—one of our all-time best players we've ever produced—to bring him off the bench when he still has something to give to us,” Altidore said on Saturday. “I think that's pretty big.”
Jamaica’s athleticism will test the U.S.
Jamaica raised its game late in the second half against Mexico, leaning on its impressive athleticism to take the lead and close out the result. The brilliant free kick goal that New York Red Bulls right back Kemar Lawrence scored to win the game was not against the run of play—it had been coming.
The Reggae Boyz forced Mexico into a lot of turnovers in the central midfield, leading to numerous counterattacks that could have resulted in a lopsided scoreline. Damian Lowe had a wide open header in the box that forced a big save. Minutes later, Omar Gordon delivered a strong shot from inside the box but it flew straight to El Tri goalkeeper Jesus Corona.
Michael Bradley will have a huge responsibility not just in avoiding turnovers but also trying to extinguish counterattacks before they begin. Bradley's central midfield partner is not yet known— Darlington Nagbe could play centrally or out on the wings. Arena is also very keen on Kellyn Acosta who had nice game against Costa Rica.
But avoiding any kind of footraces with Jamaica is also key. Darren Mattocks and Co. are a fast team. Perhaps Arena will got with a 4-2-3-1 to beef up the team's midfield presence.
No matter what, the U.S. is going to have to hold the ball, maintain possession, and avoid dumb turnovers. If it does that, it will be in good shape.
Will Acosta, Morris, Arriola emerge?
It is hard to understate the opportunity that Wednesday offers to a handful of unproven U.S. players. One decade ago Benny Feilhaber produced a stunning goal against Mexico that gave the U.S. a 2-1 win over its rival and booked a place in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Before that game, Feilhaber was mostly unknown but after that game he became a key cog in Bob Bradley’s teams—all the way through the 2010 World Cup.
It remains to be seen if Wednesday will give us another Feilhaber-like moment that elevates the status of a younger player. If it does happen, I believe it is likely to come from either Kellyn Acosta, Jordan Morris, or Paul Arriola. These three players have been growing into the U.S. squad in recent months although it is uncertain if any of them would start—or even make the full team—if all the top players are available
Morris faces competition from Dempsey, Altidore, Bobby Wood, Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer, and possibly others. Arriola is a speedy winger but Christian Pulisic can play there as can Alejandro Bedoya, Kelyn Rowe, Kenny Saief, and Gyasi Zardes. Meanwhile, Acosta has had a great 2017 but he has to fight off Dax McCarty, Danny Williams, Alfredo Morales, Sebastian Lletget, and Jermaine Jones.
Still, all three players will be looking to do something special against the Reggae Boyz on Wednesday.