When the final whistle sounded on Wednesday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup final, Bruce Arena pumped his fist, then turned to his assistants and smiled.
As celebrations go it was a muted one, especially because Arena was commemorating more than just a win, he was making history as well by becoming the first coach to win three Gold Cups.
But the journey he was hired to lead is far from over, and the 2-1 victory for the United States over Jamaica in the continental championship game is just another milepost along the way.
“I told the players if anyone sprayed champagne on me they will not be considered for the next World Cup qualifying roster. So I’m dry right now,” Arena joked before turning serious.
“I still think we’re behind the 8-ball. So we have to be successful in September and October.”
That’s when the U.S. returns to World Cup qualifying and Arena resumes the task he was hired to achieve — namely getting the Americans to Russia next summer.
Jordan Morris, who came into the tournament with only two international goals, got the most important one of his young career in the 88th minute Wednesday, collecting a loose ball at the top of the penalty area and blasting it past Jamaican keeper Dwayne Miller.
The sequence started with the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes sending a cross from the right flank into the center of the penalty area. Jamaica’s Jermaine Taylor tried to head the ball clear but it bounced it off the leg of Clint Dempsey straight to Morris, who drilled his shot home.
“That was like a dagger to the heart,” Jamaican coach Theodore Whitmore said. “That’s football. We came up short tonight.”
But not by much.
Despite losing goalkeeper Andre Blake to an injury in the 19th minute, Jamaica battled to the final seconds.
Voted the tournament’s top keeper, Blake finished with more shutouts (3) than goals allowed (2). But he left the final early after U.S. midfielder Kellyn Acosta kicked him in the right hand during a scramble in front of the net.
Blake remained on the turf for several minutes before slowly walking toward the sideline with a mangled finger that required seven stitches.
But Miller, who hadn’t played in a month, proved nearly as good.
Jozy Altidore was the first to test Miller, bending a free kick toward the left post, just under Miller’s outstretched fingers and just off the underside of the crossbar in the final minute of the first half for his second goal of the tournament.
It was a perfect shot, one Miller had little chance on.
“We had to score two great goals to win this game,” Arena said.
The score was the first allowed by Howard in the tournament. It was also the last, with the game turning into a boxing match — one in which the U.S. keep Jamaica pinned against the ropes while looking for the knockout blow.
Miller and his defense weathered the storm for a while. First Paul Arriola’s header died in Miller’s arms in the 64th minute and a couple of minutes later Michael Bradley bent two corner kicks in on the Jamaica net; the keeper gathered both in.
And on it went, with Miller deflecting a hard shot from Morris over the net in the 73rd minute, one-handing a Dempsey header off the post, then picking the ball out of a wild scramble in front of his net following a Dempsey free kick in the final five minutes of regulation time.
Morris finally broke the tie, sending the U.S. sideline into celebration while leaving the U.S. unbeaten in 14 games since Arena returned in November.
“We made a lot of progress,” said Arena, who is 18-1-4 in Gold Cup games, also a record. “But we have a long way to go. We’re a long way from qualifying for the World Cup.”
For the Jamaicans, meanwhile, the goal left them beaten in consecutive Gold Cup finals – although even that marks progress since Jamaica is the first country, other than Mexico and the U.S., to make back-to-back title games.
“The future is bright for Jamaican football,” said Whitmore, who returned for his second stint as Jamaica’s coach in September.
“The sky’s the limit for us. We just have to keep working.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11