The Gold Cup is a shitty tournament. It’s the championship of CONCACAF, a garbage confederation with two consistently pretty good teams mixed in with a bunch of flotsam of varying quality. It’s normally contested by the participating countries’ B or C teams, since no one cares all that much about winning it. It’s always hosted by the U.S., which tarnishes its status as a neutral arbiter of talent as it is slanted so heavily in favor of the USMNT and, to a lesser extent, Mexico. It’s held once every two years, which limits whatever prestige or importance it might otherwise garner were it not so frequent. It has a bizarre rule that lets teams call in additional players after the group stage, which allows a team like the U.S. to coast through the group with B-list players, then bring in a few ringers to ensure victory. And this year, since America’s only real peer in CONCACAF sent its best players to the summer’s earlier Confederations Cup tourney, even Mexico wasn’t a legitimate foe for the U.S. to overcome.
The Gold Cup for the USMNT is always—and was this year especially—more of an exercise in avoiding the embarrassment of losing such a gimme competition than it is a fight for glory. Which is in large part why the USMNT besting Jamaica last night in an ugly, rock fight of a match means basically nothing.
This isn’t really meant as a criticism of anyone directly involved in last night’s match. That the players wanted to win and were excited when they did is perfectly understandable. Trophies for a team like the USMNT are few and far between, so when you get the chance to get one, you should by no means be too ashamed to lift it. That manager Bruce Arena relied on a squad full of known quantities like Brad Guzan and Alejandro Bedoya and Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and later called in regular starters Michael Bradley and Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore in order to win a tournament in which the vast majority of his opponents were blooding newer faces is also understandable.
The easiest criticism of Arena after this Gold Cup is to point out how he refused the opportunity to give some newer, younger guys a look for the duration of the competition and instead stuck primarily with older, established players we already know about. That, too, is a little overblown as a critique of Arena. (Though really: Can’t our B team beat Jamaica’s C team without resorting to calling in a handful of A team players?) It confuses what his job actually is.
Bruce Arena was hired pretty explicitly to be a stopgap. Before him, the U.S. had Jurgen Klinsmann and all his highfalutin ideals and audacious visions for the future of American soccer. This was all well and good, up until the point where he pissed off the nearly all of his players and started losing important games and had to get the axe. With World Cup qualification (somewhat) in doubt, U.S. Soccer turned to the boring, steady hands of Arena, tasking him with getting the players back on his side, returning to winning the kind of scruffy, hard-on-the-eyes matches that typify CONCACAF play, and getting the team to the 2018 World Cup. Winning a useless Gold Cup with USMNT regulars and competent but unexciting MLS mainstays by way of a smattering of goals scored from crosses and set pieces is perfectly aligned with Arena’s limited job description, even if it doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
None of this makes the Gold Cup itself or last night’s final more important or valuable than it was, of course. The game was gross. Players with sorry technique and bumpy first touches and poor decision making abounded on both sides of the pitch. Both teams struggled at times just to prevent themselves from accidentally kicking the ball straight out of bounds. Large swaths of the match more closely resembled pinball than soccer. The U.S. dominated possession of the ball but usually couldn’t muster any form of attack other than kicking the ball out wide and lumping in an aimless cross, which Jamaica would attempt to snuff out with weak clearances that too often fell right back to American players. And with the MLS-centric U.S. bunch and the Jamaican group, about half of whom play their club soccer in the Jamaican league or in America’s lower leagues, the lack of quality on display wasn’t all that surprising. Believe it or not, when you amass unexceptional players from bad leagues on a crappy pitch, you’ll often get a bad match.
But again, none of this was really the fault of anyone on the pitch last night. It would’ve been better had this U.S. side been comprised of promising 20-somethings who could potentially springboard off this tournament into a meaningful role with the USMNT at next summer’s World Cup and beyond, but we simply don’t have many of those kinds of players just laying around. Ideally, the Gold Cup would be more like the Euros, an international competition held just a notch below the World Cup in esteem, where our best players could test themselves and improve against elite competition, but that’s not possible in CONCACAF. Maybe Arena could’ve experimented more formation- and playing style-wise, trying to teach the players different ways of playing to build a more well-rounded team capable of winning any number of ways, but stuff like that isn’t necessarily of concern to a short-term manager like he is.
The problems with American soccer are, as always, foundational. Being in CONCACAF holds the U.S. back from the rigorous, regular challenges needed to hone a top team. Having a domestic league system severed from the strongest positive and negative incentives—promotion and relegation—that force things like youth development holds the U.S. back by handicapping the country’s ability to consistently cultivate lots of potentially high-level players. Having a fan culture that treats chintzy trophies as if they were anything more than mildly pleasing curios holds the U.S. back by failing to create an environment where improvement is demanded. Having a federation that would hire a staid, status quo-protecting manager like Arena and give him the narrow focus of qualifying for the World Cup in any way possible holds the U.S. back in how it doesn’t promote the kind of radical, forward-thinking change America needs in order to become anything more than what it already is. It’s hard to blame the construction team for building a shoddy house when the architects designed it that way.
By winning the Gold Cup last night in the manner in which they did, the USMNT really only accomplished two things: they saved themselves the embarrassment of losing a tournament full of scrubs, and they solidified the fact that the deficiencies in the team and in American soccer as a whole are still there and still aren’t being addressed. Whether the actual decision makers who have the power to do something about this have the stomach to effect the necessary changes or even to accurately diagnose the flaws in the first place is a separate question—one with a depressing answer.