When Kemar Lawrence’s free kick hit the back of the net at the Rose Bowl on Sunday night, shock waves were sent through the footballing region. The New York Red Bulls left-back affectionately known as Taxi froze Mexico goalkeeper Jesus Corona, Lawrence bending his attempt up and over the wall and under the crossbar from around 25 yards out for a 1-0 lead in the waning moments of Jamaica’s semi-final affair with El Tri in Pasadena.
The almost entirely pro-Mexico crowd was stunned. The Jamaican players were stoic as the ball went in for one of the nation’s most important goals in recent memory, the Reggae Boyz going into a celebration so unique in its spiritual calmness, then replicating the display of togetherness in the team’s moment of triumph at the final whistle.
Watching all this, caught somewhere between The Deuce Show in Arlington and the dreams of a trophy lift in Santa Clara, the United States Men’s National Team saw a marquee match-up with their biggest rival suddenly shift to a chance at retribution against a noble Caribbean foe.
Jamaica are the same side that knocked the U.S. out of the 2015 Gold Cup in the semi-final stage, a fateful night in Atlanta with consequences that slowly unfolded in the weeks, months, and years that followed.
The landscape of U.S. Soccer could look awfully different today had Jurgen Klinsmann’s team been able to nab an equalizer and push for a win at the Georgia Dome just over two years ago, or if Brad Guzan had known where he was standing in an infamous moment of lost concentration.
Jamaica claimed another upset victory this past Sunday, and are into their second straight final in the continental championship, the Reggae Boyz looking to exercise demons of their own and wash away the 3-1 loss to Mexico in Philadelphia in 2015. They exacted some significant head-to-head revenge against El Tri in Pasadena. Now Bruce Arena’s side is all that stands in their way as they look to finish off the fight for their first Gold Cup title.
After an inauspicious run in the competition, the U.S. finally look like a force to be reckoned with, and surely there was a strong majority in the American camp not so secretly rooting for Mexico to win on Sunday night, setting up the final that most everyone wanted, a final in which the U.S. would have felt extremely confident.
Jamaica, however, had no interest in regional predictability, and with the left foot of Taxi sending them to Levi’s Stadium, the Reggae Boyz present the Yanks with a stern challenge.
Here are three storylines to keep a close eye on come Wednesday night, and kickoff of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final.
The A-game of Altidore; Can Jozy deliver when it matters most?
Jozy Altidore ended a ten match scoreless drought with his game winner against Costa Rica on Saturday. The question of his status atop the list of strikers in the U.S. player pool sees the answer currently sitting at Altidore’s feet.
A goal in the final would hush the haters and put the seemingly never-ending debate over his positional supremacy to rest, at least until World Cup Qualifying resumes in early September.
Altidore has scored 38 goals for the United States. None has come in a tournament final. He has never scored at a World Cup. Arguably his biggest goal in a U.S. shirt came over eight years ago, as a 19 year-old, when Altidore spun Joan Capdevilla and put the Yanks one goal to the good against the mighty Spain in the semi-finals of the 2009 Confederations Cup.
Many of Altidore’s finest displays for the national team have been in friendlies or regional affairs against the usual suspects of CONCACAF. As a player that can be so frustrating for U.S. fans to watch, Altidore has momentum on his side as the U.S. go into this crucial contest in Santa Clara.
A goal against Jamaica would not only do wonders for Altidore’s confidence (especially as the road to Russia 2018 heats up), it would put a much-needed line on his national team resume.
The Great Wall of Blake: Goalkeeping will be key for Reggae Boyz
Mexico Manager Juan Carlos Osorio has been quite candid with his less than flattering views on Major League Soccer. On Sunday, the perpetually under-fire and still suspended El Tri gaffer looked down from a glass enclosed box high above the Rose Bowl playing surface, as one of the finest goalkeepers in MLS repeatedly thwarted his Mexican side with some spectacular saves and a cool calmness in Pasadena (Lawrence’s free kick just adding to the narrative).
Andre Blake was a man in control against Mexico, and he has been just that throughout the competition for Jamaica. More than just a shot-stopper, the Philadelphia Union keeper has been just what Jamaica Manager Theodore Whitmore has needed to accompany his side’s strong and organized defensive approach.
Blake has worn the captain’s armband in the absence of Leicester City center-back Wes Morgan. He has offered his side leadership that should make Morgan and any Jamaican captain of the past quite proud.
The 26 year-old keeper will be up against a U.S. team full of confidence after their emotional 2-0 win over Costa Rica. Blake’s communication could prove just as important as his saves against the Yanks, he and his Jamaican outfield teammates showing a cohesion and commitment to defensive tasks throughout the tournament that should be the envy of most any side. That must continue on Wednesday if Jamaica are to take down the Americans.
Record. Breaking. Badass. Will it happen?
After tying the record with a marvelous and quite crafty free kick against Costa Rica, Clint Dempsey has a chance to break Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring mark of 57 goals for the U.S.
To break the record in a final would be simply divine. While Dempsey is a man with a storied career, he is also a human-being who considers himself lucky to be playing professional soccer at this point in his life after two separate heart procedures over the last two years.
If he breaks the record on Wednesday night, it very well could come via a second-half insertion into the match. From superstar to “super-sub”, Dempsey took over the semi-final against the Ticos after entering as a substitute in the 66th minute. It took him just sixteen minutes to assist Altidore and score a goal of his own. With extra-time being used in the final, Bruce Arena will need to be precise with the timing of a potential substitution. (The U.S. Manager seemed to get the timing spot on in Arlington.)
Or, Arena could, you know, play him from the start?
Whether it’s with a place in the XI or off the bench, Dempsey is a player capable of unlocking the Jamaican defense with the ball at his feet, a player capable of that one exquisite pass, and perhaps that one goal, a goal that could make American Soccer history.
USA v. Jamaica
2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara
Wednesday, July 26th
Kickoff: 6:30 PM PT
TV: FOX Sports 1 & Univision
(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.)