By Sean Hartnett
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When Bruce Arena returned for a second stint as United States National Team manager last November, he inherited a group that had grown distrustful and uneasy under predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann.
The Klinsmann Era was undone by an unnecessary amount of chopping and changing, bizarre callups, rifts with players, and historic losses.
Klinsmann’s bumpy, five-year reign feels like ages ago. On Wednesday night in Santa Clara, California, Arena and the Americans captured the Gold Cup with a 2-1 win over a stubborn Jamaica side that was difficult to break down and was backed by resolute understudy goalkeeper Dwayne Miller. Jamaica’s star keeper, Andre Blake, was forced out in the 23rd minute due to a right hand injury.
It marked the third time Arena has led U.S. to Gold Cup glory and the sixth time the Americans have captured the trophy.
Throughout the tournament, it was obvious how different the mood has changed around this team. The belief and the swagger is back. Arena has guided the U.S. to a 14-game unbeaten streak, culminating with fireworks on Wednesday night.
Jozy Altidore snuck in a go-ahead goal just before halftime, curling a free kick home from 28 yards out that even the great Lionel Messi would have been impressed by. When the second half started, Jamaica midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson quickly found an equalizer as the Americans switched off on a corner kick. Jordan Morris had failed to mark Watson, who volleyed a short-range effort past Tim Howard.
But Morris, a 22-year-old forward, would atone for his mistake in a huge way. Morris had his breakthrough moment when the ball fell to his feet in the box in the 88th minute. He launched a right corner drive that sent 63,032 out of their seats at Levi’s Stadium. His game-winning goal will be remembered for years to come, but he was integral to the United States’ success throughout the tournament, appearing in every match and scoring a tournament high-tying three goals.
Wearing Clint Dempsey’s usual No. 8 jersey, Morris played like Dempsey had passed him the torch. Dempsey, 34, has been relegated to a super sub role. He was summoned by Arenain the 55th minute. While Dempsey should remain in Arena’s plans, the new wave of American success will be led by Morris and teenage sensation Christian Pulisic.
If Pulisic is the generational talent who is targeting Landon Donovan’s legacy, then Morris appears to have the credentials to become the energetic, versatile goal-getter who could eventually take over Dempsey’s familiar role.
During Klinsmann’s reign, the feeling was “America waits.” Arena has raised the bar. Now, it’s back to “America expects.” Confidence is high ahead of the fifth round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in September. There are critical matches ahead for the Americans, who are currently in third place with eight points, one ahead of Panama with three matches remaining to lock down automatic qualification to the 2018 World Cup.
The United States will face Costa Rica when qualifying resumes at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 1.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey