SANTA CLARA, Calif. – When US national team coach Bruce Arena arrived at the podium Wednesday night following the Americans’ 2-1 win against Jamaica in the Gold Cup final, he was surprisingly dry and well-kempt for a man whose players were noisily dousing every corner of their locker room with bubbly.
Arena joked with reporters that he had stayed out of the fray by threatening anyone who got him wet with a ban from future World Cup qualifiers and any future trips to Russia next year.
But there was a subtext as well: While claiming the US’ sixth Gold Cup crown – and Arena’s third personal title in the competition – the bigger picture remains unfinished. And when the celebrations had died down, it was time to shift the focus to the final four World Cup qualifying matches this fall.
“We’re getting better, but we need to get much better than we are now,” Arena said. “We’re making progress, and we have to. I still think we’re behind the 8-ball, so we have to be successful in September and October. We have a group of guys that are motivated to do that.”
It’ll be harder to sell that narrative to a fan base who have watched the US recover from consecutive losses at the start of the Hexagonal round in Jurgen Klinsmann’s final games to climb into third place, on eight points, one in front of Panama, who visit the US on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Fla.
Arena’s second stint in charge has opened with a 9-0-5 unbeaten run, the longest such streak to start a US coaching tenure. America’s veteran players would likely say that’s not a coincidence.
“It’s back because Bruce has lit a fire under us,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “He’s got us going again. That’s why you change managers, right? To cause some sort of unrest among the players and light a fire under them. Bruce has come in and given us a lot of confidence and I think we’ve repaid him through these results.”
Arena got a look at almost every one of the 29 players he had on hand at various points of the tournament – only goalkeepers Jesse Gonazlez and Sean Johnson didn’t see action – and blooded some of them in critical moments. That was why, for example, he made sure that fully half of his starting XI in the final consisted of less experienced players – Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe and Jorge Villafaña – in what was in some ways an audition for more important matches still to come.
“We put them in the fire tonight and it was good,” Arena said. “I think they walked away with passing grades. So that’s encouraging.”
Of note to lineup prognosticators: Arena said he considered starting Clint Dempsey against the Jamaicans before opting instead to keep him in the role of supersub. Dempsey notched a goal and two assists in a combined 59 minutes during the Americans’ semifinal and final victories.
“I think Clint has been fantastic in the role we gave him the last two games,” Arena said.
It all added up to a team that ticked pretty much every box Arena could have come up with – something that probably would have been shocking to him when he took the job.
“If you had asked me in November if this is where we would be with the program, I’d probably say, ‘I don’t think so,’” Arena said.
Of course, you shouldn’t necessarily take all of Arena’s answers at face value. That no-champagne spray anecdote, for example? Not quite the whole story, according to forward Jozy Altidore.
“Yeah, we didn’t listen to that,” Altidore said with a chuckle. “We doused him. Of course we did. … He’s got a couple of suits. It looks like he changed pretty fast.”