This year’s Gold Cup final looked like an odd one on paper. Mexico, the reigning power of the region, had sent a C-team to the tournament without any adequate backup brought in for the group stages, and subsequently lost to Jamaica in the semifinals. Jamaica, who did not qualify for the Hexagonal tournament, returned to the Gold Cup final for their second straight tournament. And the U.S. made the final for the first time since 2013.
The battle promised to be scrappy and physical, with Jamaica bringing their 5-3-2 formation to the final. The Reggae Boyz had only given up 2 goals in the entire tournament prior to the final, and looked like they were content to pack it in at the back while the speedy strike-duo of Darren Mattocks and Romario Williams went to work on the U.S. back line. Somewhat surprisingly, U.S. coach Bruce Arena opted not to bring Clint Dempsey back into the starting lineup, instead fielding the same starting XI that began the semifinal game against Costa Rica.
As promised, the game featured a cagey first half. The U.S. enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but found it nearly as difficult to break down the Jamaican defense as it was to find footing on the soft pitch at Levi’s Stadium. After a smattering of half-chances from the U.S. and a couple forays forward for Jamaica, the first real threat of the game cropped up when Jozy Altidore found space thirty yards from goal and unleashed a shot with his right foot. Jamaican keeper Andre Blake saved the shot and the subsequent rebound attempt from Kellyn Acosta, but the damage had already been done to Jamaica: Blake, perhaps the Reggae Boyz best player, severely injured his hand on the play, and was forced to leave the game.
After the break for injury, the game opened up ever so slightly, with both sides enjoying better chances. Jamaica found themselves in dangerous positions with a couple free kicks, but couldn’t make anything happen from them. The U.S. had the Jamaican defense scrambling first with Jordan Morris getting to the endline, and then again a couple minutes later with Darlington Nagbe, but both crosses ended in a scrum in the box and were eventually cleared.
There would be daylight at the end of the first half, however. A foul on U.S. skipper Michael Bradley gave the Americans a direct free kick 30 yards from goal. Altidore, Acosta, and Bradley all gave the ball long looks before Altidore stepped up and swung a right-footed curler over the wall and into the back of the net. Jamaican back-up Keeper Dwayne Miller managed to get his fingertips to the ball, but only enough to glance it onto the underside of the crossbar. Holding the advantage in possession, shots, and goals, the U.S. took a slender but encouraging lead into halftime.
That lead would evaporate shortly into the second half, as Jamaica leveled through Je-Vaughan Watson. On their first shot of the game, Watson snuck behind Jordan Morris on a corner kick to smash the ball in at the back post. The Reggae Boyz were level, and as long as they could continue to generate set-pieces, there was no reason to believe they couldn’t win this game.
The second half played out much the same as the first. The U.S. held possession, briefly threatened in places, and failed to generate a goal, while Jamaica looked to break and win fouls and corners. The introduction of Clint Dempsey gave the U.S. a shot in the arm, as the elder statesman of the attack hit the post with a header. Still, the score seemed irrevocably level as the game entered its final minutes.
Then, a play as inspired as it was garbage: a hopeless Gyasi Zardes cross to no one in particular fell to Clint Dempsey in the box. And Dempsey, as he has done his entire time at this tournament, and his entire career, figured out what needed to be done. Quick as a flash, he flicked the ball through his legs to a waiting Jordan Morris, who made no mistake from 12 yards out. The Jamaican defense looked hopelessly as the ball crashed into their net, the one they had defended with 10 men dutifully all night. Undone by a cross from Gyasi Zardes. With only minutes left on the clock, Jamaica mustered only a cross or two into the U.S. box as the Stars and Stripes ran out the clock. For the first time since 2013, the USMNT are Gold Cup Champions.