SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — Bruce Arena’s goals entering the CONCACAF Gold Cup went beyond beating regional rivals and raising a championship trophy.
They were about strengthening bonds eighth months into his second tour as U.S. men’s national soccer team coach. They were also about introducing newcomers to the hardships of the international game, offering hope to the overlooked, and expanding roster options before the last push for a 2018 World Cup berth.
So no matter how Wednesday’s final against Jamaica plays out, whether the Americans win their sixth title or fall victim to the giant-slaying Reggae Boyz at Levi’s Stadium, Arena will take stock in what he saw, heard and learned during 31 days of togetherness and three weeks of tournament matches in six NFL stadiums.
Make no mistake: “We want to win a trophy,” he said.
But there were bigger issues at work here and, with the U.S. team finding its way under a new coach, the Gold Cup has served a purpose.
“Four months ago, we were rebuilding our program, a program that was in desperate shape,” Arena said, reflecting on a visit to the Bay Area in March for a World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
“We’ve made great strides over the last four months.” The Gold Cup final is “a great opportunity for us to continue to make progress.”
If winning were the only thing, Arena would’ve named all of his regulars to the primary 23-man roster. However, he felt he needed to strike a balance between evaluating secondary players and assembling a championship-caliber team.
So he granted time off to his European-based regulars, including teenage sensation Christian Pulisic, before they had to rejoin their clubs for preseason workouts.
In the end, he has enjoyed success on both fronts and set a program record for the best start to a coaching tenure (8-0-5).
After an unconvincing group round, the Americans welcomed several regulars for the knockout stage and proceeded to defeat El Salvador and Costa Rica by 2-0 counts. A much-anticipated championship showdown with Mexico fizzled Sunday when Jamaica ousted the defending champions, 1-0.
Along the way, Arena accomplished his mission of distributing minutes.
Every non-goalkeeper started at least once. Three of the five goalies who passed through camp earned a start, with first-choice Tim Howard taking the reins in the quarterfinals after Brad Guzan joined his new MLS club, Atlanta United. D.C. United’s Bill Hamid started one group game.
In DeAndre Yedlin’s void, Graham Zusi and Eric Lichaj have alternated starts at right back. For years, the English-based Lichaj had been disregarded by Arena’s predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann.
At left back, newcomer Justin Morrow started twice. In central defense, Arena has tried four different combinations and tested Matt Hedges and Matt Miazga before settling on the hardened duo of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler.
Left wing Kelyn Rowe and forward Dom Dwyer showed well before returning to their respective MLS teams. Veteran Alejandro Bedoya led and inspired. Midfielder Cristian Roldan made his U.S. debut. Chris Pontius and Gyasi Zardes returned to the fold on the flanks.
Dax McCarty was the primary defensive midfielder before captain Michael Bradley arrived for the knockout stage. Midfielders Paul Arriola and Joe Corona were provided ample opportunity.
Nine players have supplied a tournament-leading 11 goals.
After the first match, Arena made eight lineup changes. After both the second and third matches, he swapped out all 11 starters.
“You make one change and you’re concerned about it, let alone 11,” Arena said. “So every game we played, you are never quite certain what you are going to get, but overall we thought the plan would work.”
Not always. The Americans were fortunate not to lose to Panama in the opener, which ended in a 1-1 draw. They wasted a two-goal lead against unknown Martinique before pulling out a 3-2 victory. Needing a three-goal triumph against lightweight Nicaragua to win Group B, they spent almost the entire night to accomplish it.
The arrival of Howard, Bradley, Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore bolstered the squad ahead of the quarterfinals. (Tournament regulations allow coaches to make up to six roster changes after the group stage.)
Arena declined to go into detail about which of the fringe players have strengthened their cases for future call-ups. No one gave a breakthrough performance warranting a starting job in the next World Cup qualifier, Sept. 1 against Costa Rica.
But, Arena said, “we have a very good understanding of our player pool at this point, which is a real positive coming out of this tournament. We’re well-positioned to understand what we need to do in September and October in order to qualify for the World Cup.”
The players, meantime, are buying into Arena’s grand scheme.
“Coming into the situation, into the job, we were in a tough spot,” Dempsey said of Arena succeeding Klinsmann after two World Cup qualifying defeats. Now, “we’re a few days away from possibly winning a trophy and then a few months away from possibly qualifying for the World Cup. He’s done a great job.”
Gold Cup final
Who: United States vs. Jamaica.
Where: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
When: Wednesday at 9:45 p.m. ET.
TV: FS1, Univision, Univision Deportes.
Live streams: Fox Sports Go, Fox Sports Match Pass, Univision Now, fuboTV, univisiondeportes.com.