A historic night in Arlington saw the U.S. advance to the final of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 2-0 win over Costa Rica. Texas native Clint Dempsey came off the bench midway through the second half, entering a scoreless affair and proceeding to grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
Dempsey, who replaced Paul Arriola in the 66th minute, assisted Jozy Altidore just six minutes later to give Bruce Arena’s side the lead in what had been a tight and tense match with the outcome very much hanging on a knife’s edge throughout the evening.
After a marvelous piece of virtuoso ball-control in the middle of the park, dicing through the Ticos with a Velcro like dribble, Dempsey slid a delicate pass through to Altidore who had held his run perfectly. Altidore (who hadn’t scored for the U.S. in ten matches dating back to a World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago last August) still had plenty of work to do, his left footed shot well placed to the lower right side of Costa Rican goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton. Though Pemberton was able to get a paw to it, the Tico netminder could not prevent Altidore’s shot from sneaking inside the near post and hitting the back of the net.
Screams of jubilation ensued from the crowd of 45,516 at AT&T Stadium as Altidore ripped his shirt off in celebration (his nipples showing no signs of scarring after the now viral incident with El Salvador’s Henry Romero this past Wednesday in the U.S.’s 2-0 quarterfinal victory over La Selecta). Altidore received a yellow card for the histrionics, thankfully his first of the tournament since joining up with the team in the last round.
Ten minutes after Altidore broke the deadlock, in the game’s 82nd minute, a moment of history that was long in the making finally took place, and you would be hard pressed to hand pick a better venue for this particular piece of American soccer history to be made.
Sitting on 56 goals in a U.S. shirt, Dempsey scored on a sensational free-kick for his 57th, tying Landon Donovan for first all-time on the U.S. goal scoring list.
It was a uniquely emotional moment in time, with Donovan himself not only in attendance but serving as part of the three man broadcast team for Fox Sports alongside play-by-play man John Strong and former U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden. The FOX cameras centered in on Donovan seconds after Dempsey had made the score 2-0, the superstar turned “super-sub” putting the nail in the Gold Cup coffin of Costa Rica.
The Nacogdoches kid, the man affectionately known as Deuce, sent his shot low to the near-post, the ball bending viciously around the Costa Rican wall and past an outstretched Pemberton diving to his left.
Though the attempt was a grass skimmer instead of a top-bin drive, the goal came from a strikingly similar spot on the field to that of Dempsey’s finish against Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, a free-kick that completed his hat-trick in a memorable 6-0 World Cup Qualifying win for the Stars and Stripes.
“I saw the keeper cheating a little bit,” Dempsey said with a stern poker face post-game. “Then it went in.”
When asked about the emotions running through his mind, and what it meant for a working-class boy from East Texas to accomplish this feat in his home state, just 162 miles from his hometown no less, the gratitude and humility of Clint Dempsey came to the surface.
“After two heart procedures,” Dempsey said, referencing his well documented health struggles over the last couple years, “to still be playing at this level… I’m living the dream.”
With Wednesday night’s final at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara now looming large, (the winner of Sunday’s semi-final between Mexico and Jamaica at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena awaiting the Yanks) here are three additional observations from what was surely the finest U.S. performance of the tournament thus far.
Beautiful Besler: Shades of Azteca ’13
Matt Besler has received as much criticism as any American player at the 2017 Gold Cup. It has been well deserved.
Besler had been mediocre in his time on the pitch in this tournament, looking slow and bewildered at times, not giving Arena and his staff any real level of comfort as a center-back.
That all changed quite dramatically on Saturday night, Besler partnering back up with Omar Gonzalez, the two commanding ample respect for their shutdown performance as a duo in the center of the U.S. backline.
The 2-0 win over Costa Rica was the best game Besler and Gonzalez have played together since March of 2013, when both men were influential in a heroic 0-0 draw with Mexico at the Estadio Azteca.
U.S. fans are hopeful that Saturday night’s showing from Besler and Gonzalez could be a sign of things to come. At this point, regardless of the opponent, Arena would be crazy to start any other center-back partnership in Wednesday’s final.
Jozy’s Back: Altidore off the schneid
Three nights after getting bitten in the back and having his nipple twisted on national television, Jozy Altidore made the headlines for a much more satisfying reason.
Altidore’s winning goal against Costa Rica ended one of his worst goal-scoring droughts in a U.S. shirt. It also possessed a bit of seasoned veteran, wiseman patience mixed with the sheer, beast like desire and drive for which the striker is known.
As Altidore saw Dempsey weaving his way into the final third, the U.S. striker held his run, knowing that Dempsey was capable of the extra few touches that could force defensive panic and make the passing lane all the more threatening. Altidore’s timing was exquisite, hanging even with the last Costa Rican defender before kicking into gear milliseconds before Dempsey sent him through on goal.
The finish wasn’t easy, but it was the run that meant just as much in the grand scheme. It was the type of play that would almost always see an offside flag raised against Altidore when he’s struggling, the way he has been throughout 2017. Seeing the assistant keep the flag down in that pivotal moment could serve as a microcosm for a Jozy turnaround with the national team. Only time will tell, but right now, Altidore is certainly trending upward and looks a lock for a place in the starting XI in the final.
Unbeaten Bruce: 13 matches without a loss in 2017
The argument of whether the U.S. are better as a team since Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing last November is burning its last embers, and it may finally be put to rest on Wednesday night.
However, the team’s 13 match unbeaten streak should be put in proper perspective, the U.S. not exactly taking on any world beaters since January.
While it might be a “less than full-strength” Mexico squad, the magnitude of a potential USA-Mexico Gold Cup Final would be immense, making a 14th straight match without a loss (if they were to lift the trophy) a true accomplishment for Arena and his team.
U.S. fans should know, however, to not overlook Jamaica, especially in the semi-finals of a Gold Cup.
Regardless of what happens Sunday in Pasadena, Arena and the U.S. will be primed and ready to fight for the country’s first piece of silverware since the Gold Cup of 2013.
The fate of the region’s soccer summer shall be decided Wednesday night in Santa Clara.
(Stay tuned to SoccerNation.com and follow on Twitter @Soccer_Nation for more in-depth coverage of the United States Men’s National Team and the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.)