SANTA CLARA, Calif. — U.S. manager Bruce Arena lauded his team’s 2-1 victory over Jamaica in the Gold Cup final but acknowledged that there is plenty of room for improvement as it prepares for a pair of World Cup qualifiers in September.
“The Gold Cup is important,” Arena said at his postmatch news conference. “I think if you’re in it, you’ve got to be in it to win. We accomplished that, so that’s a real plus.”
United States looked to be in total control as it took a 1-0 lead into half-time, thanks to a Jozy Altidore free kick.
With Jamaica’s stellar goalkeeper Andre Blake forced out of the match with a right hand injury, everything seemed to be lining up for the Americans. But Je-Vaughn Watson equalized minutes into the second half, outworking Jordan Morris to volley home Kemar Lawrence’s corner kick at the far post.
United States turned the screws thereafter, with Clint Dempsey’s header touched onto the post by substitute keeper Dwayne Miller. The Americans did have to survive a few anxious moments from Jamaican counterattacks, but Morris ultimately made amends in the 88th minute, pouncing on a loose ball to fire past Miller to secure victory.
“Jamaica was a very difficult opponent,” Arena said. “We needed to score two great goals tonight to win, and we did. Give credit to Jozy and Jordan. Those are great goals.
“I applaud our team, I applaud Jamaica. Their defensive performance throughout the tournament was outstanding. They’re hard to play against. Their goalkeeping was excellent.
“Unfortunately Blake got injured. I don’t even know the name of the second keeper [Dwayne Miller], he was excellent, he did a great job. Give credit to them.”
The victory marked Arena’s third Gold Cup triumph, though he attributed that to longevity more than anything.
“I think the only reason I’ve been part of winning three Gold Cups is that I’ve been in a lot of them,” he said.
Arena complimented nearly every element of his lineup, but he singled out his veterans for praise. Many of them joined up with the team after the group stage, and their consistent performances keyed the Americans’ run to the title.
“Our older players are unbelievable,” he said. “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.”
Arena was also impressed by some of the less experienced elements of his roster. In the final he gave starts to Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Jorge Villafana, Darlington Nagbe and Morris, and the decision paid off.
“They are players with not that much experience at the international level, not that many caps, and to put them in the fire tonight was good. I think they walked away with passing grades,” he said. “That’s encouraging.”
Arena was especially pleased to see Morris shake off his mistake in failing to mark Watson, keep his head in the game, and eventually find a way to make a critical play.
“I didn’t like the mistake on the corner kick, but to hang in there and play well and make the difference in the game is encouraging,” Arena said. “He’s a young player with a lot of talent, a lot of physical qualities.
“I think he’s going to continue to grow. My predecessor did an outstanding job for getting him involved in the program. He’s a player we certainly think has a future.”
But what pleased Arena most of all was the improvement his team has made in 2017. United States is now unbeaten in 14 games under his watch, though he knows there is work to be one.
“My focus is on ‘are we getting better?’ We’re getting better, we need to get much better than we are right now,” he said. “But it’s a credit to these players — they’ve done an outstanding job.”
Now Arena must regroup and prepare for the next round of World Cup qualifiers.
“I’ve got to find the right blend,” he said. “We’re a long way from qualifying for the World Cup, and that’s the objective for sure. So we’ve got to evaluate this performance in July and the next couple of weeks I have to select a roster for our World Cup qualifying. Then we have to win some games in September and October.”
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.