The U.S. Men’s National Team has been at or near the top of the CONCACAF totem pole for a while, but they’ve experienced little success on the continental level at the Gold Cup in recent years.
The USMNT enter Wednesday’s final at Levi’s Stadium against Jamaica with two trophies in their last five tournaments. Of the players eligible for selection in the final, only Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have played in Gold Cup finals.
It’s not just the young players that are hungry for a trophy. Veterans like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore want to hoist the trophy with a win over the Reggae Boyz.
“My observations of those two players since they’ve been here is that this is very important and they’ve demonstrated great leadership in the couple of weeks they’ve been with us,”Arena said. “If you know Michael Bradley, everything is important to Michael. He’s a serious professional, very focused. I think Jozy is excited about being in the final. I think any athlete in any sport would like to compete for a championship. I think whether it’s an accomplished player who has won many championships or a player that has not, they should be excited about playing in a final.”
Bradley and Altidore will be key figures on Wednesday, with Bradley patrolling his normal part of the field in front of the back four and Altidore bruising with defenders in the final third. But with Jamaica focusing in on those two and Clint Dempsey, it could be time for one of the lesser-profile stars in the team to shine with a trophy on the line.
Two familiar faces on the Jamaican side present challenges for Americans at certain positions on the pitch. The first comes out wide with whoever Arena opts to start on the right wing. Whether it be Darlington Nagbe due to Kellyn Acosta’s inclusion centrally, or Gyasi Zardes or Paul Arriola, they will have work past Kemar Lawrence, who has been one of Jamaica’s top performers at the Gold Cup.
“Kemar has been good,” Jamaica head coach Theodore Whitmore said. “We’ve seen improvements game by game. Kemar is one of the more senior players in the squad. He’s very influential.”
If Zardes or Arriola starts on the right wing and fails to deal with Lawrence, the pressure will be on Nagbe to influence the game from the left wing, and when he moves inside naturally. Arena has wanted Nagbe to be more selfish throughout his time with the USMNT, and Wednesday could be the perfect time for the breakthrough as a dynamic international player to happen.
“Anything he does doesn’t surprise me,” Arena said. “I think he’s got a higher ceiling and I think he’s going to continue to get better. I think he’s a special talent that I’m hoping we can help move him along because I think he’s got some great qualities.”
The other position to focus on is center back, where Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler turned in a solid performance against Costa Rica in Saturday’s semifinal. It would be wise of Arena to start the experienced duo once again to deal with the creativity and pace of Darren Mattocks.
“Mattocks has really been a very strong striker and very dangerous and can turn a game on one play,” Arena said.
Bradley will also be key in limiting Mattocks’ chances, especially when the Jamaican attacker attempts to surge forward on the counter. If Gonzalez and Besler are caught further up the field, Bradley or Acosta must intervene to stop Mattocks from challenging Tim Howard.
If the USMNT win those two individual battles, they should be in charge of the possession battle and they’ll have plenty of chances to test Andre Blake, who has arguably been the best player at the Gold Cup. Getting one past Blake won’t be easy, but the same can be said about Tim Howard.
The USMNT must also be patient as they try to break down the Jamaican defense that has been one of the best at the Gold Cup.
“Their back line has been very good and we all know Blake is an outstanding goalkeeper,” Arena said. “They’ve been able to collectively defend very well, been opportunistic to get important goals and have worked real hard as a team to be where they are today.”
But as long as they follow their game plan, the USMNT should be able to put Jamaica’s defense under enough pressure to succumb to a one or two open chances, and with plenty of Americans on the field Wednesday night looking to win their first international championship and Clint Dempsey looking to break Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring record, there should be plenty of motivation to push Arena and company across the finish line.