Thanks to goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, the US men’s national team avenged their 4-0 loss to Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying to secure a spot in the Gold Cup final.
In the semifinal, Bruce Arena’s men put in a competent if not unspectacular performance we’ve come accustomed to throughout the tournament, but there were a few bright spots to build on as the team now has the opportunity to take home some silverware.
Here’s five takeaways as the USMNT head to the 10th Gold Cup in their history:
Stability at the back
The center-back combination of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler provided something the USMNT hadn’t had all Gold Cup: stability.
Prior to the tournament, Arena highlighted the opportunity to see the depth of his player pool by fielding a couple of different back line combinations. Through four games, none of the combinations fostered much confidence as the US looked nervy at every turn.
In contrast, Gonzalez and Besler showed an excellent understanding of each other’s positioning and were decisive in their tackles. The resulting stability held Costa Rica in check for large swaths of the match and provided the US with a platform to build on going forward with the ball.
Congratulations to Clint Dempsey. The Seattle Sounders forward slipped an excellent free kick by the near post of the Costa Rican keeper to score the 57th goal of his international career and pull him into a tie atop the USMNT record books with Landon Donovan.
Starting the match from the bench, Dempsey’s entrance jump started the USMNT’s attack. Dropping into pockets of space in front of the Costa Rica defense, Dempsey was incisive and direct with his passing resulting in the US’s first goal and eventually a spot in the Gold Cup final.
Fans will likely remember this match more for Dempsey’s record-tying goal but the attacker’s super sub performance is likely the beginning of Dempsey’s role going forward with the national team. With the likes of Sounders teammate Jordan Morris and youngster Christian Pulisic now firmly in the US team, Dempsey’s likely not a surefire starter anymore. But if he can continue to be a catalyst off the bench when the team is in need of some bite going forward, he’ll remain indispensable to Arena’s plans in qualifying and eventually in Russia in 2018.
Heading into the Gold Cup, Jozy Altidore hadn’t found the back of the net for the USMNT since September of 2016. Shocking considering the striker’s club form with Toronto FC.
He’d never admit to it but the drought clearly was getting to the striker. Early in the match, Altidore passed up a clear shooting opportunity to play an ill-advised cutback that was just behind teammate Kellyn Acosta. A striker like Altidore doesn’t even think of attempting that when he is routinely finding the back of the net.
That being said, Altidore showed excellent poise in taking his goal to start the scoring for the US. Slipped in by Dempsey, Altidore still had a lot to do and out waited the keeper to precisely the perfect moment before slotting home. That decisive taking of an opportunity is what you want to see from a striker and a very good sign for the US heading into the final.
Tim Howard is still the USMNT No. 1
Since joining the team at the start of the knockout stage, Howard hasn’t put a single wrong foot forward.
As he did against El Salvador in the quarterfinals, Howard popped up to make key saves despite being relatively dormant most of the game. Howard’s focus and experience is what sets him apart from the other keepers in the US pool and is why he is so vital in big games for the team. He clearly still as a role to play and a few game-saving moments in the tank.
Darlington Nagbe is a joy to watch with the ball at his feet
He didn’t figure into the scoreline but Darlington Nagbe was one of the standout performers for a USMNT that has been relatively so-so all tournament. Picking up the ball in wide areas, Nagbe ate up huge chunks of the pitch dribbling right at Costa Rican defenders.
Aside from Pulisic, the USMNT don’t really possess a player with that kind of skill set. It’s that swagger on the ball that this team is crying out for and the reason Nagbe looks to be commanding a more pivotal role in the team’s set up going forward.
Nagbe does still have the tendency to drift in and out of games and despite the team’s superior possession against Costa Rica, he did go absent at times. It’ll be interesting to see if he can build on this performance in the final and bag his first trophy with the USMNT.