The day before taking on Jamaica in the 2017 Gold Cup final, U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez firmly put things into perspective.
Thirteen straight games unbeaten since Bruce Arena took over from Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach had revived the Hexagonal qualifying campaign and restored confidence, yet no definitive outcome had been attained.
"I think overall we're at a good point, right now, but we're not done yet," Gonzalez had said. "We haven't qualified for a World Cup, we haven't won anything, so we want to stay humble, keep on working hard, hopefully get the result we want tomorrow, and then look forward to qualifying."
The Americans will resume qualifying in September as regional champions. By beating Jamaica, 2-1, they regained a crown surrendered two years ago when the Reggae Boyz registered a stunning victory by the same score in the semifinals. Mexico then beat Jamaica in the final and a penalty-kick loss to Panama in the consolation match left the U.S. fourth, its poorest finish since a PK defeat inflicted by guest team Colombia in the 2000 quarterfinals.
To attain this feat, his third Gold Cup title as U.S. head coach, Arena plumbed the depths of his player pool without summoning any of his European-based players (besides Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj). Only keeper Sean Johnson did not see playing time in the group phase. Of the six permitted additions for the knockout rounds, only another reserve goalie -- Jesse Gonzalez -- stayed on the bench.
To play six competitive matches in 19 days while hopscotching across the country Arena used 27 players. In his postgame comments, Arena took the opportunity to laud Gonzalez -- "he gave us a great couple of weeks" -- whose change of allegiance from Mexico to the USA was approved in time by FIFA for Arena to add him along with veterans Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Darlington Nagbe, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey for the elimination games.
"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."
Dempsey slid into a role as super-sub by coming off the bench in the semifinal against Costa Rica to set up a goal for Altidore and nail the clincher himself in a 2-0 victory. The goal tied him with Landon Donovan for the all-time U.S. record of 57 goals, yet he was back on the bench for the final though Arena said he had considered starting the 34-year-old.
Instead, Dempsey replaced Kellyn Acosta in the 55th minute and nearly scored with a sharp header that keeper Dwayne Miller tipped onto the goal post. In the final minutes as overtime loomed, a low cross by another sub, Gyasi Zardes, caught the Jamaican defense flat-footed, and Dempsey reacted quickest. He relayed it to Jordan Morris and his Seattle teammate blasted a shot into the top corner.
"We're very confident," said Dempsey. "We've had a lot of different guys chipping in and a lot of different lineups that we've used and we've had a lot of guys step up, so there's a lot of competition for spots."
Arena has a few weeks to evaluate the effect of that competition as he plans out his approach for two Hexagonal matches Sept. 1 and 5. The Americans host Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena and travel to Honduras for the seventh and eighth games, respectively, of the 10-match schedule. Eight months after starting out disastrously with a home loss to Mexico and 4-0 thrashing in Costa Rica, the Americans have won twice and tied twice to climb into third place. The unbeaten streak is 14 games.
"We were so far under the surface of the water we were just trying to get a breath," said Howard of a dramatic turnaround. "Bruce has come in and slowly but surely set an expectation and level of excellence for this team and again, we thank him for his belief in us but we've tried to repay that by winning."