SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — The locker room was awash in celebration and champagne, the U.S. national soccer team’s rewards for winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Wednesday with a 2-1 victory over Jamaica. And yet, amid bubbly geysers that whipped around the room like a renegade fire hose, Coach Bruce Arena’s dark blazer and pinstriped dress shirt remained as dry as the Bay Area summer night.
“I told the players if anyone sprays champagne on me, they will not be considered for the next World Cup qualifying roster, nor the World Cup if we reach the World Cup,” Arena joked later. “I’m dry now. It’s surprising, isn’t it?”
It was perhaps Arena’s way of saying that, despite a trophy-raising moment at Levi’s Stadium, his work was far from complete. While a Gold Cup championship is nice, the U.S. Soccer Federation abruptly brought him back nine months ago to steer a wayward program to the sport’s spectacle next summer, the World Cup in Russia.
That project — which began at a notable deficit after two defeats under Arena’s predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann — is incomplete. The Americans are back on stable ground but not out of danger, needing to accumulate points in most of their last four qualifiers this fall.
“We’re a long way from qualifying for a World Cup, and that’s the objective, for sure,” he said. “We have to evaluate this performance, and in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got to select a roster and then we’ve got to win some games in September and October.
“We’ve made progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The Gold Cup served as a rebuilding block. Mixing young and secondary players with core figures, Arena guided the United States to its sixth regional championship in the 14 times it’s been held since 1991. The team had fallen short of the title in three of the previous four attempts.
After tying Panama in the group opener, the Americans won five in a row by a 12-3 margin.
On Wednesday, before an announced crowd of 63,032, they went ahead in the 45th minute on Jozy Altidore’s sensational free kick from 28 yards past reserve goalkeeper Dwayne Miller, an early replacement for the brilliant Andre Blake (hand injury). Jamaica, seeking its first Gold Cup title, drew even five minutes after intermission on Je-Vaughn Watson’s volley off a corner kick.
With regulation melting away and extra time and perhaps penalty kicks on the way, Jordan Morris, a 22-year-old forward for MLS’s Seattle Sounders, stabbed a 14-yard shot into the right side of the net. The 88th-minute goal was his team-high third of the tournament and made amends for a defensive lapse that led to Jamaica’s goal.
Morris was one of several figures seeking to use the tournament to bolster their future roster outlook. Others included D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (one start), defender Eric Lichaj, and midfielders Kellyn Acosta, Dax McCarty and Paul Arriola.
Many regulars, including teenage star Christian Pulisic and other European-based players, weren’t summoned for the Gold Cup.
Arena and his staff will soon begin reviewing individual Gold Cup performances and then deciding which players will join the core group in forming a 23-man squad for the Sept. 1 qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. Four days later, the United States will visit Honduras.
The United States currently stands third in a six-nation group that will send three teams to Russia. A fourth will enter a playoff.
Beyond the Gold Cup results, the U.S. team played hard and played together. The spirit off the field, during some five weeks together, was strong.
Technical aspects were “certainly not perfect,” Arena said. But given the rotating lineups and novice international players, the team made strides.
“If you asked me in November this is where we would be with the program,” Arena said, “I would probably say, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
Ultimately, Arena will be judged not by the Gold Cup triumph but by whether he qualifies for the World Cup. USSF officials aren’t looking for style points or long-term player development at this late stage in the cycle; they want — and need, for American soccer’s broader interests — to participate in the sport’s quadrennial festival for the eighth consecutive time.
The Gold Cup performance promises to buoy the World Cup effort.
“It was an incredible opportunity,” Arena said, “to use the Gold Cup to see where we are as a program.”
The program is 9-0-5 since Arena’s return, the longest unbeaten streak to start a U.S. men’s coaching tenure. Arena is the most successful coach in the program’s history, having previously guided the 2002 and ’06 World Cup squads.
“The guys are in a good spot right now,” Morris said of the vibe under Arena. “He has come in and established a really good identity. Now we have to keep moving forward and qualify.”