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No Mexico? No matter. U.S. soccer says, ‘We want to win a trophy’

Tim Howard and the United States are seeking a sixth Gold Cup trophy. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP-Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE — The matchup in the Gold Cup final is not the one CONCACAF privately wanted, because a U.S.-Mexico showdown elevates ticket sales and stirs curiosity beyond the region’s borders. It’s not what Fox Sports and Univision wanted either, because a U.S. vs. Mexico match, in any soccer competition, draws strong TV numbers.

None of that, however, matters one bit to the U.S. squad, which, after securing its place Saturday with a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica in greater Dallas, arrived in the Bay Area on Sunday in time to watch coverage of Jamaica’s 1-0 triumph against Mexico.

The Americans were quick to dismiss suggestions that Wednesday’s championship match at Levi’s Stadium in nearby Santa Clara has lost luster because Mexico failed to join them.

“I [couldn’t] care less who we are playing in the final,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “We want to win a trophy.”

Looking at this Washington-based reporter, he added, “We could be playing against your team in Fairfax, Virginia, for all I care.”

After winning the Gold Cup once in the previous four attempts, the Americans aren’t choosy about the last hurdle.

“Getting our hands on that trophy is paramount for us,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said, “no matter who stands in our way.”

CONCACAF announced Monday that almost 60,000 tickets are gone, but a large percentage of the advanced sales were undoubtedly in anticipation of Mexico’s appearance. El Tri is the tournament’s biggest draw, even though the event is played in the United States. And with many Mexican supporters holding tickets to the final, it’s unclear how many will try to unload them on the secondary market or not bother showing up.

There’s also the aggravation factor: a mid-week match kicking off during rush hour (6:45 p.m. local) in a notoriously bad traffic zone.

Most observers figured Mexico, which has won a record seven Gold Cup titles and has cruised through 2018 World Cup qualifying, would advance to the final. Many weren’t so sure about the United States, a five-time champion featuring an experimental roster.

The Americans, though, have gotten better as the tournament has transpired, bolstered by the arrival of five regulars after the group stage. Meantime, Mexico never found its groove. With a mixed roster at the end of a busy seven weeks of international competitions, El Tri lacked menacing qualities in the attack.

Jamaica’s victory was an upset but not a stunning one. The Reggae Boyz, runners-up to Mexico two years ago, had held El Tri to a 0-0 draw in the group stage by utilizing defensive tactics. In the rematch, Jamaica was bolder with the ball and stout in defense, fully prepared to lean on star goalkeeper Andre Blake in a penalty kick tiebreaker before Kemar Lawrence deposited a free kick in the 88th minute at the Rose Bowl.

“It was probably what we expected,” Howard said of the Mexico-Jamaica semifinal. “It was tight. It was close. I don’t know if I was able to pick the winner going into it, so I’m not surprised.”

Arena said he has noticed changes in the way Jamaica has gone about business in this tournament.

“They’re a different kind of Jamaican team than we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “They have a lot of discipline. They are very strong defensively and they’re hard to play against. That, to me, is not what you typically see out of a Jamaican team.”

>> The Americans will have to find a way to solve Blake, the Philadelphia Union goalkeeper who has conceded two goals in five matches and made multiple high-quality saves against Mexico.

“Make him work, put him under pressure,” U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said. “He’s athletic, he’s tall, has long arms, makes some big saves. He’s good coming out on crosses and being brave. But at the end of the day, we have Tim Howard. Going up against him [in training], he prepares us for anybody.”

U.S. attacker Chris Pontius has exchanged text messages with his Philadelphia teammate throughout the tournament.

Ahead of the semifinals, Pontius said, “I told him it would be cool if we both got to the final.”

Is it an advantage knowing Blake’s game so well?

“No, I don’t think so,” said Pontius, who is unlikely to play but will surely provide tips to his U.S. colleagues. “Anything near him, he’s going to get it. You have to be very clean with your strike and you’ve got to get it to the corner.

“You’ve seen his shot-blocking abilities, his ability to come out on crosses and, after that, how he organizes the defense so well.”

>> Arena, on 38-year-old Howard: “That’s the advantage of being a goalkeeper; you don’t have to run around for 90 minutes. It’s still challenging. You look at [39-year-old Gianluigi] Buffon for Italy. There’s no reason to believe Tim can’t keep going.”

Howard said a large part of his continued success is off-field preparations.

“It takes every single hour to get myself ready.”

>> Dempsey has said multiple times since Saturday’s semifinal that tying the U.S. career scoring record has brought him even greater satisfaction because he did so in fewer matches and with fewer penalty kicks than co-leader Landon Donovan.

Both have 57 goals. Dempsey has converted six penalties, Donovan 15. Dempsey reached the mark in 136 matches, Donovan 155.

Dempsey will not catch Donovan on the assists chart: 58-20.

“It was on my mind a little bit,” Dempsey said of chasing the record. “The most important thing was qualifying for the World Cup. After that, this tournament. Individually, you see the goal is there, and for me to be able to tie the record with less games and less pens, it kind of feels like I already broke it.”