US wary of Mattocks, Blake and "very strong" Jamaica in Gold Cup final

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Bruce Arena has been a keen-eyed observer of CONCACAF for decades now, so he was only saying aloud what must be on the minds of soccer fans throughout the region as they prepare for the conclusion of this summer’s Gold Cup on Wednesday night.

“I think everyone’s getting sick of seeing Jamaica in the finals now,” Arena said, eliciting laughs at his Levi’s Stadium press conference Tuesday. “We’ve got to have more parity in this tournament.”

American fans and players are undoubtedly hoping for more of the same rather than a sea change against the Reggae Boyz on Wednesday (9:30 pm ET; FS1, Univision, UDN in the US | TSN 1/3/4/5 in Canada). A win by the US – who remain unbeaten in 13 matches across all competitions since Arena’s return in November – would give the hosts their sixth Gold Cup title, although only their second since 2007.

For veterans such as Toronto midfielder and US captain Michael Bradley, this isn’t a chance to right past wrongs or fill holes on a resume. It’s very simply an opportunity to hoist a piece of hardware.

“I want to win because I want to win,” Bradley said. “There’s no axe to grind, there’s no ghost of the past. It’s a chance to play in the final.”

If there was a ghost, it might be in the form of Portland Timbers forward Darren Mattocks, who has starred for Jamaica this month and scored the opening goal in Jamaica’s shocking 2-1 semifinal win against the US in the 2015 edition of this tournament.

A repeat victory Wednesday would rank among Jamaica’s greatest soccer moments – and perhaps bring a higher profile to a team that historically lags far behind the island’s track and cricket programs.

“I don’t think we are a football-loving country. It’s only when the tides are high,” coach Theodore Whitmore said. “[A championship] would mean a lot for us as a country and our football going forward.”

As Whitmore pointed out, this is Jamaica’s version of the World Cup, having failed to advance to the Hexagonal in the qualifying run-up for Russia. And it’s a chance for redemption after falling short two years ago; Mexico prevailed 3-1 in the final.

“We have a few players that participated in the last Gold Cup final,” Whitmore said. “They want to rewrite history by not only making it to the final but actually winning the final. They know the task at hand and they’re up for it.”

Nobody fits that description better than Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, who was on the bench vs. Mexico in 2015. Blake, now wearing the captain’s armband, has been a titan in net for Jamaica this time around.

The 26-year-old shut out the Mexicans twice inside two weeks and his presence is giving confidence to the defenders in front of him, helping Jamaica limit opponents to just two goals in five matches.

“Words can’t explain what Andre has meant to this team,” Whitmore said.

Of course, Blake and his defenders haven’t faced a team with the firepower of the US, which leads all Gold Cup sides with 11 goals from nine different players. The Americans are expected to dominate the bulk of possession Wednesday; the key will be to find a way to carve out space in Jamaica’s penalty area without exposing themselves to a counterattack by the likes of Mattocks.

“Certainly, a part that we’ve emphasized is that when we’re good and patient with the ball, that then our ability to organize and get balance behind the attack, make sure that we can arrange ourselves in a good and aggressive way and really clamp things down before they use their speed and athleticism,” Bradley said. “That part, in a game like this, will be very, very critical.”

Said Arena: “Mattocks has really been a very strong striker, very dangerous, and can turn a game on one play.”

If he were to do so, it might be a sign that Arena’s joke is coming closer to reality – something that the coach acknowledged in a more serious moment.

“I think you see that the game is shrinking around the world, in the fact that the lesser-known teams are more accomplished today,” Arena said. “They have more experienced players. They have better coaching. And we’re in a low-scoring sport, so the likelihood of being able to pull off an upset is much greater.”