ATLANTA – For the first time in more than a decade, a period spanning five straight tournaments, the United States will not play for a Gold Cup championship.
As it turned out, Jamaica boss Winfried Schaefer’s pregame David vs. Goliath analogy was spot on, as the Reggae Boyz shocked the US 2-1 in the semifinals Wednesday night at the Georgia Dome via first-half goals from MLSers Darren Mattocks and Giles Barnes before surviving a frantic American rally to book a place in the final.
Jamaica will take on the winner of Panama-Mexico in their first ever Gold Cup final on Sunday at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field, while the United States and the loser of Wednesday night’s semifinal finale will face off a day earlier at PPL Park to decide the tournament’s third-place finisher.
In 22 previous meetings, the islanders had registered just one win against the US, a World Cup qualifying victory by the same scoreline in Kingston in September 2012. The Americans, meanwhile, fell to 8-3-1 in Gold Cup semifinals, their first loss at that stage of the tournament since 2003 when they fell to Brazil, 2-1, in extra time.
It was the Americans’ first home loss to a Caribbean foe since 1968, forcing the winners of the 2013 Gold Cup into a playoff against this year’s tournament champion to qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Schaefer made two changes to the Jamaica team that snuck past Haiti, 1-0, in the quarterfinals, as FC Dallas midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson and Mattocks of the Vancouver Whitecaps reclaimed their places in the starting lineup following one-game suspensions for yellow-card accumulation.
Timmy Chandler, who didn’t train between the quarterfinal and semifinal with a knee injury, found himself on the bench for the first time in the tournament as Jurgen Klinsmann turned to Brad Evans at right back. John Anthony Brooks, meanwhile, returned to central defense alongside Ventura Alvarado.
Jamaica stayed true to the tactics that defined a respectable, if ultimately pointless, Copa America appearance and run to semifinals, keeping their lines tight, crashing the box on set pieces and relying on the speed of Barnes and Mattocks to counter.
That game plan nearly gave Jamaica an early lead against the run of play in the 27th minute, but Barnes, unmarked at the penalty spot, blazed his one-time effort into the stands, a miss he’d make up for less than 10 minutes later.
The Americans responded immediately, with Aron Johannsson nearly catching Reggae Boyz goalkeeper Ryan Thompson napping in possession and Fabian Johnson curling a shot that was pushed out for a corner, but it was the underdogs who took their chance first via a long throw in – a potent weapon for both sides on the night.
It was an all-MLS connection between left back Kemar Lawrence (New York Red Bulls) and Mattocks that created the opening goal, with the ‘Caps forward rising highest to flick on a header that kissed one post then the other before trickling over the line for a 1-0 lead.
Just five minutes later, it was 2-0 after a bizarre play – a handball called on goalkeeper Brad Guzan after he extended outside the 18 on a throw upfield – left the US defending a direct free kick a foot outside their penalty area. Up stepped Barnes, and into the back of the net the ball went on a powerful right-footed shot that curled over the wall and inside the near post past the helpless Guzan.
Unfortunately for Reggae Boyz fans, who spent much of halftime high fiving and wearing ear-to-ear grins, any Dos a Cero dreams they may have harbored were short-lived.
Just three minutes into the second half, Thompson bobbled a routine shot, allowing Clint Dempsey to pounce on the loose ball. And although his shot was smothered, Michael Bradley followed up on the doorstep to stick the rebound into an empty net and ignite U-S-A chants from the previously discouraged American fans.
The US nearly tied the match three minutes later via another shaky moment from Thompson. Though the Pittsburgh Riverhounds netminder got his body in front of a Johnson free kick, he was unable to hold on to the ball, gifting Johannsson a free header from the top of the six-yard box that went to waste.
Again, in the 57th minute, the US forced Thompson into a moment of uncertainty, a Bradley shot from distance dancing in the air before striking the goalkeeper’s right shoulder then the post before ricocheting back into play.
But that goal never came, prompting wild celebrations from the Jamaican players on the field and their fans in the stands while the US trudged off the field with only a consolation game to look forward to.