Clint Dempsey (28) celebrates with U.S. teammates Graham Zusi (19) and Omar Gonzalez (3) after scoring a goal during a Gold Cup semifinal match against Costa Rica on July 22. (Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press)
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 win 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 in Santa Clara against the winner of Sunday’s Rose Bowl game between Mexico and Jamaica.
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 national team coach.
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 national team start 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 score, 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.
Dempsey was an interested spectator for the game’s first 66 minutes but he quickly made an impact after Arena sent him on for Paul Arriola, threading his way through the defense deep into Costa Rican territory before leading Altidore with a pass.
Altidore sped away from two defenders, then one-timed a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton from the left side of the penalty area for the only goal the U.S. would need.
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.
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.
The second half brought more wasted opportunities, with Darlington Nagbe, wide open at the far post, unable to handle a Graham Zusi cross in the 52nd minute. In the 70th minute, Pemberton got one hand on a blast from Kellyn Acosta from the edge of the area.
Arena summoned Dempsey, who put the U.S. on his shoulders.
It was 17th victory in Gold Cup competition for Arena, a CONCACAF record. A victory Wednesday will make him the first coach to win three tournament titles.
Arena is unbeaten in 13 games since replacing Klinsmann in November. And 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.”
The Costa Rican team has also undergone changes since November, none of them planned.
Injuries began picking off Ramirez’s players even before the Gold Cup began when defender Ronald Matarrita was forced to leave the team because of a broken foot. Four other players were lost to injury during the group stage and forward Ariel Rodriguez was injured in the quarterfinals.
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.
Before Saturday’s game, CONCACAF announced suspensions to El Salvador’s Henry Romero (six international) and Darwin Ceren (three games) for “anti-sporting behavior” in their quarterfinal game with the U.S.
Romero bit Altidore and Ceren bit Omar Gonzalez.