NPR

A Comeback Could Be On The Horizon For U.S. Men's Soccer

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Star forward Clint Dempsey, left, celebrates after scoring a goal against Costa Rica during a Gold Cup semifinal soccer match earlier this month.
LM Otero, AP
Star forward Clint Dempsey, left, celebrates after scoring a goal against Costa Rica during a Gold Cup semifinal soccer match earlier this month.

The U.S. Men's National Soccer Team is back in a familiar position Wednesday night — playing to win the Gold Cup. It's a record 10th time the U.S. has reached the finals of the CONCACAF tournament, which crowns the continental champion of North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Twelve teams started the tournament and just two remain: the U.S. and Jamaica. The U.S. has an impressive all-time record against Jamaica (14 wins, two losses and eight ties). But U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard says the match won't be easy. "They're in the final based on merit. They're a powerful team, very athletic. They've shown that they've been defending very well. They get out on the break and cause problems with their pace. It's going to be a tough game for us."

The United States defeated Jamaica earlier this year 1-0 in an exhibition match in Chattanooga, Tenn. That game in February was also Coach Bruce Arena's first win after he returned to lead the U.S. men's national team after a decade hiatus.

Since he took over last November, Arena has not lost a game (eight wins and five ties). That's the longest undefeated streak to start a U.S. Men's National Team coaching tenure. "Four months ago we were rebuilding our program. A program that was in desperate shape of being in a position to qualify for a World Cup," he said. "So I think we've made great strides in the past four months and [playing in the Gold Cup Final] is a great opportunity for us to make progress."

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The success comes at a good time for the United States. Arena replaced Jürgen Klinsmann who had been the squad's leader since 2011. Klinsmann was fired after a disappointing start in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. In 2002, Arena guided the U.S. to its best-ever finish in the World Cup (the quarterfinals) but he also was at the helm when the U.S. was eliminated in the group stage of the 2006 tourney.

The U.S. men have played in every World Cup since 1990 and that streak was in jeopardy until Arena returned as coach. Since then, he guided the team to two wins and two draws in the final qualifying round. The U.S. is now in a much better position to make next year's tournament in Russia once qualifying resumes on September 1 with a match against Costa Rica (a squad the U.S. beat in the Gold Cup semifinals on Saturday).

How the U.S. fares tonight has no direct bearing on its World Cup chances. But star forward Clint Dempsey (who tied the U.S. scoring record with his 57th goal against Costa Rica) says it's still important. "We know we're in a position to accomplish two big things this year." (win the Gold Cup for a fifth time and qualify for the World Cup in Russia).

Tonight's game against Jamaica begins at 9:30 p.m. ET in Santa Clara, Calif. and will be televised on FS1, Univision and Univision Deportes Network.

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