I’m a sports jingoist, but I have to admit: There was a sliver of me that would have been OK with Jamaica winning the Gold Cup final against the United States on Wednesday night.
It would have been the biggest win in Jamaican soccer history. The Reggae Boyz — this is not horrible stereotyping on my part, they call themselves the Reggae Boyz — have made only one World Cup (in 1998, when they gave up nine goals in three games) and failed to even reach the final stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifying process that the Americans are currently battling through. They’d never won a Gold Cup.
Meanwhile, this would have been the sixth Gold Cup win for America, and not even with our strongest squad. We sent a B-team, allowing the team’s European-based players (such as Soccer Savior Christian Pulisic) to have some semblance of an offseason and giving coach Bruce Arena the chance to evaluate less-tested players (such as forward Jordan Morris) who might round out a potential 2018 World Cup roster. Only four of the 11 players who started in the critical June World Cup qualifier against Mexico were even in the U.S. squad for the Gold Cup’s knockout stages.
My heart grew for Jamaica as their goalkeeper, captain, and best player, Andre Blake, exited in the 22nd minute with a freak hand injury. What joy would I derive from watching our B-team beat a diminished underdog from a country with literally 320 million fewer people?
But that shred of me that thought I’d be down with a Jamaican win? It completely vanished when Morris banged home the Cup winner in the 86th minute.
Morris was almost the game’s goat, because of his role on the lone Jamaican goal of the night. (Yes, he’s the one spacing out during an active corner kick.) But he was there with the clutch goal, and he was all but crying about the tournament we were told nobody cared about.
We can all agree that the Gold Cup is meaningless. There are plenty of things that are foolish or awkward about the tournament. There is little competitive balance: The United States and Mexico have won the tournament 13 of 14 times, with a Canadian win in 2000 the lone outlier. The tournament includes non-FIFA sides like Curaçao, Martinique, French Guiana — I’m perfectly OK with this, because colonialism sucked and still sucks and we don’t need its awkward vestiges affecting our modern-day sports. It does, however, cause awkward situations like French Guiana intentionally taking a forfeit so it could play national hero Florent Malouda even though he was ineligible due to his play for France in FIFA competitions.
The Gold Cup is a blatant cash grab by CONCACAF, the money-grubbing North and Central American and Caribbean soccer confederation.The tournament is always hosted (or cohosted) by the United States, although this isn’t quite as unfair as it might seem, since many American home games do not feel like home games. While Europe, South America, and Asia all hold continental tournaments every four years, CONCACAF holds the Gold Cup every two years. This makes one of the tournament’s reasons for existence — selecting a continental champion to play in the Confederations Cup — awkward. Instead of sending a quadrennial winner, CONCACAF will hold a playoff between the United States and the 2019 winner to see who makes the 2021 Confed Cup. (If it happens.) But putting the U.S. and Mexico in American soccer stadiums makes money, so CONCACAF will keep holding it every two years until that stops being true.
We know winning the Gold Cup tells us little about the future of American soccer. To be honest, it tells us little about the present of American soccer. A Gold Cup win in 2005 came right before a hideous 2006 World Cup; the B-team that got shelled 5–0 by Mexico in the 2009 final said little about the American team that would win its group at the 2010 World Cup. It would be nice to guarantee that this win signifies that Arena will right the American ship in his second stint as national team head coach (he also won it in ’02 and ’05), but Bob Bradley and Jürgen Klinsmann both won their first Gold Cups in charge of the national team, and while both led the team to decent successes, both also became extremely fireable.
America may be a big fish in CONCACAF’s small, corrupt pond, but it’s the pond America is stuck in. No matter how good the United States gets at soccer, I promise it will never be in Europe. The MLS could become more popular than the NFL, and Christian Pulisic could become our next president, and the United States will never get into a sexier confederation. This is not a matter of soccer skill, but plate tectonics.
America’s choice is not where it plays soccer, but whether it wins the soccer games it plays. And in this tournament? America won, and in pretty damn cool ways. The Americans turned into a different team after the group stages — literally, they subbed out the guys responsible for a draw with Panama and an uncomfortable roller-coaster ride of a 3–2 win over Martinique for national team mainstays like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard.
The reinforcements bounced past El Salvador in spite of the Salvadoran attack on Altidore’s nipples:
Against Costa Rica, Clint Dempsey came on as a substitute and played one of the prettiest games in his illustrious national team career, making magic on both goals to get revenge on a Tico team that trounced America 4–0 in November:
(That free-kick goal tied Dempsey with Landon Donovan as America’s all-time leading goalscorer and has him third in the world behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo amongst active international goalscorers. I always knew he was the third-best soccer player in the world, and now I have proof.)
And then there was Wednesday’s final against Jamaica, featuring the Morris game winner and this booming Altidore free-kick goal from almost 30 yards:
No, winning the Gold Cup doesn’t promise American success in Russia in 2018 (in fact, the USMNT has yet to seal qualification). But there were two options here: winning the Gold Cup, or not winning the Gold Cup. Mexico, the team we’re supposed to get excited about playing, chose option no. 2 when it lost 1–0 to Jamaica on an absolutely stunning Kemar Lawrence free kick.
The Gold Cup is not the most prestigious trophy. But we should celebrate it. It’s the trophy the United States can win. (The United States’ men, that is — the United States women’s national team will continue routinely winning the highest-level tournaments in the world.)