The USMNT: A Post-Gold Cup Assessment
When it comes to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, you don’t need to be an expert to realize the tournament has a number of obvious shortcomings.
Despite the hovering presence and praise of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, these championships of North America, Central America and the Caribbean severely lack global significance, and based on the number of less-than-full-strength squads on display and so-so match attendance numbers compared to simultaneous club friendlies, one could argue the tournament isn’t exactly relevant on the regional level, either.
But regardless of the competition’s faults, it’s hard to argue that this Gold Cup won’t have some lasting ramifications for the national teams involved, and that’s especially true for the squad who raised the trophy in Santa Clara on Wednesday night.
For the first time since 2013, the United States Men’s National Team are champions of something, as Bruce Arena’s squad avenged their 2-1 defeat to Jamaica in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals with a reverse scoreline in the final match of the tournament's 2017 edition against the Reggae Boyz in the Bay Area’s Levi Stadium.
It wasn’t always pretty -- for proof, re-watch any of the Americans’ first four matches -- but thanks to a few veteran reinforcements on the pitch and the bench and the emergence of a new face or two, the USMNT are kings of the confederation once again.
The long-term implications of winning this edition of the Gold Cup will be unveiled over time, but at the moment, here are the biggest immediate takeaways from the Yanks’ run to the crown.
It can’t be a coincidence, can it?
When Bruce Arena stepped in for his second stint in charge of the national team in November of last year, the Americans were floundering in sixth place of six in CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying hexagonal and had just been battered 4-0 by Costa Rica in San Jose.
Dissension and dissatisfaction in the ranks under former manager Jurgen Klinsmann had become widespread, and Arena -- the winningest coach in USMNT’s history -- was tasked with salvaging a not-doomed-yet-but-not-looking-good World Cup bid.
Some thought the move was short-sighted, an uninspired return to the comfort of a familiar face and old tactics instead of a more progressive approach.
But as it turns out, sometimes there’s nothing wrong with turning back the clock.
We’re 14 games into Arena’s second term, and the side has yet to taste defeat, the second-longest unbeaten run all-time for the men's national team. The USMNT have risen from last to third in the Hex and are back on pace to qualify for an eighth-consecutive World Cup with four matches remaining.
Capturing his third Gold Cup title -- the most all-time for any manager -- is just icing on the cake.
Arena raised eyebrows after selecting an experimental squad for this tournament, and lots of digital ink was splashed regarding the “end of the honeymoon” period after the inexperienced group of MLS and Liga MX based-players produced several disjointed and uneven displays throughout the group stage.
But the 65-year old from Brooklyn pulled all the right strings from there, bringing in a group of veterans/legends for the knockout stages that steadied the side and propelled them to their sixth Gold Cup championship.
Bruce isn’t perfect -- there's a reason he and the USMNT parted ways after the dumpster fire that was the 2006 World Cup -- but the abrupt turnaround he’s engineered in the last eight months has the players and the fan base believing that something special could lie ahead next summer
The Old Guard Still Has It
Clearly, the much-discussed waning of several senior members of the USMNT has been greatly exaggerated.
After a near-flawless series of performances during the knockout stage, 38-year old Tim Howard leaves this Gold Cup as the undisputed No. 1 between the sticks and should carry that title through the summer of 2018. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been watching him, and they’ve certainly been ignoring the mistake-prone chase pack that’s never really taken their chance when called upon.
Clint Dempsey might not have started the semifinal or final, but the 34-year old Texan was the epitome of an impact sub in both contests, assisting on the game-winner and scoring a gorgeous free kick against Costa Rica, before causing all sorts of problems to the Jamaican backline in Wednesday’s final.
Deuce -- who is currently tied with Landon Donovan atop the USMNT all-time goals list, a fact you could not miss if you were watching Fox’s coverage of this tournament -- is still a key part of this roster even though his physical tools are starting to diminish. There’s no one in the country with more skill and subtlety to his game, and his three-match cameo confirmed his place moving forward.
Let’s be honest. Jozy Altidore was awful after being called up for the quarterfinals against El Salvador, although with all the nipple-twisting and biting he endured, can you really blame him?
Not to be deterred, the 27-year old attacker bounced back in the matches that followed, netting the game-winner against Costa Rica and slotting home a memorable free kick to open the scoring against Jamaica. Jozy’s never going to be the world-class striker many in the US camp hoped he could become, but his physicality, finishing and experience are still second-to-none in the USMNT player pool, and his stock only improved after this tournament.
Then there’s Michael Bradley, quite possibly the most maligned star player in USMNT history. The captain stepped in to a midfield that looked out-of-sorts -- to put it kindly -- and overhauled it into a cohesive unit in both attack and defense.
Despite only playing in three matches, Il Generale’s impact was substantial enough that he was named the tournament’s MVP. Days away from turning 30, Bradley’s prime may be winding down, but his influence on the national team is far from over.
Nagbe, Morris Ready For More
By naming an initial 23-man roster filled with first-time call-ups and young talent, Bruce Arena was clearly hoping to find a break-out star or two in this Gold Cup.
Enter Darlington Nagbe and Jordan Morris.
Already established as a major MLS star at 27-years old, Nagbe isn’t exactly a new face on the scene, but until this tournament, the midfielder hadn’t fully stamped his place as a regular in the national team set-up.
After a series of steady performances in several different roles across midfield, the Portland Timbers captain is now feels like a must-start for Arena moving forward, though what position he’s best suited in still feels yet to be determined.
Then there’s 22-year old “Stanford Messi”.
The Seattle native enjoyed a fairy tale first pro season, capturing MLS Cup with his hometown club while being named the league’s Rookie of the Year and breaking in to the USMNT set-up on a regular basis.
The months since last December have been less kind, as Morris has endured a well-documented sophomore slump that’s seen him net just twice in 16 appearances for the Sounders.
But of course, all the negative shifted drastically over the last three weeks, as Morris came on to score twice to save the Americans’ blushes against Martinique on Matchday 2 and flame-throwered in the tournament-winning goal in the 90th-minute against Jamaica.
No, we’re not forgetting that the former Stanford All-American had been directly responsible for the Reggae Boyz’ equalizer after losing his man on a 49th-minute corner, but let’s all agree this made up for it.
Morris’ first-team place that he held down in the semifinal and final of this Gold Cup likely won’t stick -- Hamburg’s Bobby Wood will likely stay ahead of him in the pecking order for now -- but there’s no denying he has a knack for goals, and his heroics this summer won’t soon be forgotten.
Places Still Up For Grabs
Finally, while the likes of Nagbe and Morris took their chances to stand out well, many others had mixed results or didn’t capitalize at all from their time at this Gold Cup, and that means there are several starting spots still up in the air.
Even though Jorge Villafana has been the starting left back for ten of the 14 matches the USMNT has played in 2017, whether or not he's the answer at that position is still yet to be determined. He’s certainly not as poor as Timmy Chandler or -- shudder -- Jonathan Bornstein, but the chances of him handling the type of world-class wing play he’ll likely face in Russia next summer aren’t promising.
With that said, the other US fullbacks employed at this Gold Cup -- Graham Zusi, Eric Lichaj and Justin Morrow -- didn't exactly set the tournament alight, and unless Fabian Johnson slides back into defense, there is no DeAndre Yedlin coming from Europe to provide help on the left.
Then there's the wing. Alejandro Bedoya played well out wide against Nicaragua, but he didn't do much against Panama and (admirably) left to be with his family for the birth of his second child before the knockout rounds. In his stead, Paul Arriola and Gyasi Zardes showed flashes, but both are still a mixed bag of potential, pace and a lack of end-product.
Don't forget that Nagbe had played out wide almost exclusively for the national team until this tournament, but while it feels like his immediate destiny is in the middle of the park alongside or in front of Bradley, necessity might push him out wide.
Oh, and then there's 18-year-old wunderkind/savior Christian Pulisic, who didn't play in this tournament in preparation for another grueling European season with Dortmund. Whether out wide or in a No. 10 role, he's going to be starting somewhere come September 1 against Costa Rica.