Clint Dempsey: “We know we’re in a good position to accomplish two big things this year.” (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Bruce Arena and the U.S. national team return to the Bay Area in much better shape than when the Americans first played here in March.
The team was in tatters, winless in the final World Cup qualifying group.
The Americans recorded a 6-0 win over Honduras at Ayava Stadium in nearby San Jose to re-ignite their hopes of reaching Russia next year.
Now, they are on the verge of earning a trophy — the CONCACAF Gold Cup — for the sixth time and first since 2013. They need to defeat a resurgent Jamaica side in the final at Levi’s Stadium here Wednesday night.
“Four months ago we were rebuilding our program, a program that was in desperate of being in position of qualifying for a World Cup and all other things,” Arena said. “So I think we’ve made great strides over the last four months. This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make progress.”
As well as the U.S. has done, there still is work to be done, added Clint Dempsey, who came off the bench to spark the U.S.’s 2-0 semifinal win over Costa Rica with a goal and assist.
“We were in a tough spot. We’re a few days away from possibly of winning a cup and a few months away of having the possibly of qualifying for Russia,” he said. “There’s still work to be done. There’s no time to think that you’ve made it. We know we’re in a good position to accomplish two big things this year.”
Standing in the Americans’ way is a revived Jamaican team that has become the talk of the tournament after stunning defending champion Mexico, 1-0, in the semifinals. Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence scored a free kick for the ages in the 88th minute in the semis.
“They are a different type of Jamaican team than we have seen in the past,” Arena said. They have a lot of discipline. They’re very strong defensively and very hard to play against.”
The U.S. must find a way to solve goalkeeper Andre Blake, who has his own highlight video reel with his acrobatic saves in the tournament. He has earned more man of the match honors (three) than goals he has surrendered (two) in the tournament.
“He made an unbelievable reaction save against Mexico, a couple of other good saves,” Arena said. “He’s grown as a goalkeeper because he’s very commanding there. Good leadership. He’s excellent.”
Jamaica, which lost in the 2015 final to Mexico, 3-1, is trying to become the first Caribbean team to win the Gold Cup.
“We have to treat this Gold Cup as our World Cup,” said head coach Theodore Whitmore, whose team already had been eliminated from World Cup qualifying in the semifinal round.
Added Blake: “We have a plan. We all believe in each other. We just have the mindset that no matter who comes in front of us right now we can beat whoever it is. It doesn’t matter for us. We just know that we have no limits on ourselves.”