Against all my expectations, the Seattle Sounders may turn out to have a debt of gratitude to pay to Bruce Arena. As much as anyone, I’ve decried the former LA Galaxy coach’s decisions on how to use various Sounders.
I was OK with calling up Cristian Roldan, who had never before gone into a United States national team camp. But Jordan Morris? He was having an awful season and could have surely used that month to repair his game away from the national team spotlight. And Clint Dempsey? If this was a B-team tournament, he didn’t need a 34-year-old who has proven everything he possibly could.
With the dust all settled, though, I have to admit Arena played it all just about perfect. Or at least, the players made sure they got the absolute most out of their chances.
We’ve already seen how Roldan looked upon returning from the USMNT, an experience that was more about training at a high level than playing (he only got into one game). In two games back, Roldan has looked almost like a new player. There’s a new confidence to his game, especially in the offensive third. He’s already scored three goals in that time, easily could have a couple more and probably should have an assist or two.
We don’t know what Dempsey or Morris will look like, but both have to be feeling pretty good.
Dempsey, of course, tied the all-time USMNT scoring record. More importantly, though, he showed that he could not only embrace, but thrive in a different kind of role. For a long time, teams have basically been forced to build around Dempsey’s unique skillset. In the Gold Cup, he showed a whole gameplan doesn’t need to be built around him in order to play well. Despite coming off the bench in two of the three games he played, Dempsey found a way to positively affect each one.
It was Dempsey’s assist that gave the USA a much-need insurance goal against El Salvador in the quarterfinals. Almost immediately after entering the semifinal against Costa Rica, Dempsey set up Jozy Altidore’s go-ahead goal and he put the game away with a perfectly taken free kick.
There had been hints that Arena was starting to wonder if Dempsey could handle a reduced role, which he’d like have to accept if he makes the Russia 2018 roster. This tournament showed that he could be the kind of impact sub the USA has never really had.
As big as the Gold Cup may have been for Roldan and Dempsey, it’s hard to argue that either of them needed this as bad as Morris did. His spot in the national team may not have literally depended on this tournament, but it was getting close. As much as Arena may like Morris’ skillset, he wasn’t going to be able to keep justifying his space if the production wasn’t there at either the national team or club levels.
Morris put those concerns to rest. He was the only USMNT player to feature in all six games, and never looked remotely out of place. Morris provided speed and energy off the bench when asked, and even showed off some impressive passing and hold up play.
In his starts, he was even better. Morris’ brace against Martinique can be cast aside as coming against what was effectively a semi-pro outfit, but that goal against Jamaica was as big-time as it gets. Playing with the knowledge that it was his lost mark that put the USA in the position of needing a late goal, Morris fulfilled every young soccer player’s dream: slamming a late, cup-winning goal into the back of the net. It was no surprise that cameras found him crying tears of joy (and likely relief) following the final whistle.
As important as his performance was for his national team status, Morris’ general confidence needed this maybe even more. He’s currently riding a nine-game goal-less streak for the Sounders, having not scored since April 23 and only logging six total shots in his past eight league matches.
Of course, it’s much easier to look at all of this in a positive light because of how the Sounders have played in the meantime. During the three games that overlapped with the Gold Cup, the Sounders went 3-0-0 and scored 10 goals. That’s their best three-game stretch since at least 2014, and it came while they were missing any number of their stars in each contest.
In a way, it could be seen as their most important stretch, possibly even further back. This was a team that had struggled mightily in recent years whenever their top players were out. In their most recent win, they managed a 3-0 win without any of their three Designated Players or their reigning Rookie of the Year. It was the first time the Sounders won a game without a single Designated Player since April 9, 2011.
We knew this stretch of games could potentially be make or break for the Sounders. I don’t think any of us thought they’d make out quite this well.