Quietly, quickly and methodically, Bruce Arena has remade the U.S. national team in his image.
Eight months into his second term as coach, the dispirited team Arena inherited is now resilient, confident and more than a little bit cocky.
But most of all it is successful, with Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica at AT&T Stadium sending it to the Gold Cup final it failed to reach two years ago. The U.S. will play for its sixth continental championship Wednesday at Santa Clara against the winner of Sunday’s semifinal game between Mexico and Jamaica at the Rose Bowl.
To get there, it had to overcome a stubborn Costa Rica team that routed the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier last fall, a result that led U.S. Soccer to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and bring Arena back for this second term as coach of the national team.
The U.S. hasn’t lost since.
And it was two veterans — Jozy Altidore, coached by Arena in his first professional season, and Clint Dempsey, who got his start on the national team under Arena — who made the difference Saturday.
The two combined to break open a tight defensive game with goals 10 minutes apart in the second half, with Dempsey’s goal, the 57th of his U.S. career, tying him with Landon Donovan for the national team record.
His assist on Altidore’s goal was his 20th. Only three Americans have more.
“He was going in between 60 and 70 minutes. That was the thinking,” Arena said of his game plan. “At that point both teams were a little bit tired. We just needed a little bit more technical ability in the last third of the field, passing and finishing.”
And that’s what Dempsey provided, threading his way through the defense deep into the Costa Rican end before leading Altidore with a pass. Altidore dashed away from two defenders and one-timed a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton from the left side of the penalty area.
Dempsey made it 2-0 on a free kick from about 25 yards, directing a low shot through the Costa Rican wall and just inside the near post to tie Donovan for the record.
“It’s a fabulous record for any player to have,” Arena said. “It was something that was important to Clint. And to score that goal in a big game, I’m sure makes it even more special.”
The U.S. attacked at a high tempo through much of the scoreless first half, dominating possession 61% to 39%. But it clearly missed the kind of midfield playmaking Christian Pulisic provided during the World Cup qualifiers and went into halftime without a shot on goal.
That’s the spark Arena hoped to get when he summoned Dempsey, and the oldest field player on the U.S. roster didn’t disappoint, putting the team on his shoulders and carrying it to Santa Clara.
It was the 18th victory for Arena in Gold Cup competition, a CONCACAF record. A victory in the final would make him the first coach to win three tournament titles.
He is unbeaten in 13 games since replacing Klinsmann in November. Costa Rican coach Oscar Ramirez said the difference in the U.S. team since then is palpable.
“Before, you felt there was a certain tension there,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “Now the environment I see is a happier environment. I think it’s a theme of Bruce Arena, that he has changed, he has brought calm.”
Injuries left Ramirez without more than a quarter of his original Gold Cup roster. With a healthy squad, he suggested, Saturday’s game may have gone differently.
But Ramirez won’t have to wait long for a chance at revenge. Costa Rica’s next game is a World Cup qualifier against Arena and the U.S. on Sept. 1 at Harrison, N.J.