One of the questions – the big, honking, existential questions – that the US men's national team faced heading into this month's Gold Cup was "What do they do without a playmaker?"
This is kind of a weird question to ask because the US have not traditionally had a "traditional" playmaker, as in "a guy who primarily sits between the lines of midfield and defense and creates danger from there." Landon Donovan was at his best on the wing, and Claudio Reyna was a much deeper, metronome-type midfielder. Tab Ramos probably came closest to being what we consider a "true No. 10," but the late 1980s and most of the 1990s were a different time for the US. The goal was to destroy the middle of the pitch, not to play from there.
Times have changed, and nobody's changed them more than an 18-year-old kid from central Pennsylvania. Christian Pulisic, who is not at this tournament, has nonetheless cast a large shadow over it from the US perspective, because his ability to get between the lines or burst through them and make a game-turning play elevates the US to a higher place. It allows the US to break down a dogged team, or to out-skill a disciplined team, or to create where their opponent just wants to make a mess.
Even against as good and disciplined a team as Costa Rica, that's what the US can do, and how they should play.
When Pulisic's around, that's largely how they have been playing under Bruce Arena. But the lurking fear is "Oh God oh God what happens if Pulisic's not around?"
I thought the answer would come in this tournament in the form of Kelyn Rowe, or had hoped this would be one last look for Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan or Lee Nguyen. But it wasn't. Rowe was shackled to the wing before being sent home, and none of the other three were called in. And so, this:
The US played a pretty flat 4-4-2, shuttling the ball down one wing and then down the other. Jozy Altidore did some fun stuff pulling into midfield, and Darlington Nagbe was reliable, Jorge Villafaña fairly dangerous getting forward. There was never a doubt the US were the better team, and there was never a danger from the Ticos save for a flash of brilliance from Bryan Ruiz and a couple of mental lapses from Omar Gonzalez. For most of the game, it was 0-0.
And then Clint Dempsey came on, and the US shifted their formation. You could call it a lopsided 4-2-3-1 or a lopsided 4-3-1-2 if you want (both Nagbe and Jordan Morris were very fluid for the last 25 minutes), but the numbers here don't really matter. What matters is that Deuce set up shop in that Pulisic-sized hole between the lines, and the movement around him started to be very good.
Thus, the game ended 2-0. Nothing about why or how this happened is a mystery.
Dempsey has played all over the field during his US career. His best years under Bob Bradley were as an inverted left winger, and under Jurgen Klinsmann were as a second forward. He also played as a lone, false 9 in the 2014 World Cup. He started his career as a central midfielder in New England. He really has done a bit of everything.
The last act for Clint Dempsey will be as a super-sub all-around attacker and, it seems, as Pulisic's "break in case of emergency" back-up playmaker:
There are, as far as we know, two players in the USMNT pool who can make that kind of play. I wish we got to saw Rowe or one of the other guys given a real shot there, but we haven't. I wish we didn't really need a guy in that spot because we're overloaded with lightning-fast, creative wingers and can play like Germany, but we're not. And for now that's just fine, because Deuce has a message:
He's not done yet.
A few other notes:
• Matt Besler, who I've been kind of down on lately, was flawless save for one comedically bad concession of a corner in the first half. His reading of the game was superb and one of him or Gonzalez did a nice job of making sure the backline wasn't playing in Tim Howard's lap.
In general there was better coordination between the center backs than there has been at any point in this tournament. The Ticos managed just seven shots, only two of which were on target. It was a very encouraging if not entirely dominant showing.
• Kellyn Acosta still struggles to leave more than a split-second's imprint on the game. He made two good runs and could have had two goals for it, and won a few balls at midfield and hit some ok passes, but the US are probably better off when their No. 8 finds the game more, and controls it.
There were times where he looked hesitant to push too far forward for fear of stranding Michael Bradley, which is understandable given how fearsome Costa Rica can be on up-the-gut counters. This is legitimately terrifying:
I get the hesitation, but he needs to better understand how and when to take risks with his positioning.
Bradley, for what it's worth, was excellent again. In 750 minutes under Arena with him on the pitch at defensive midfield, the US have conceded exactly one open play goal.
• Altidore scored the game-winning goal, set up a pair of glorious chances and did a lot of tireless running, and I suspect none of the work he did will get the credit it deserves.
• The big issue for the US is fullback aggression, and that goes back to the central defense. Once Villafaña started realizing that Besler was gobbling up everything and refusing Costa Rica the chance to play in behind or over the top, he pushed up more, and that gave the US more width, and that allowed Nagbe to drift inside a little bit, and that gave the US better numbers in midfield, and that meant Altidore and Morris could push higher, etc. etc. etc.
Ours is a kinesthetic game – when one part moves, the rest should feel it. There'd been little of that so far in the Gold Cup heading into Saturday night, but then things changed, and the US beat a very good Costa Rican side because of it.
Not every question around US camp has been answered, but a few of the biggest ones have been. Now, onto the final.