USA players celebrate with the Gold Cup after defeating Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on July 26, 2017. The USA won 2-1. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When the CONCACAF Gold Cup began, United States men's national team coach Bruce Arena looked at the event as a chance to view some second-stringers and youngsters with an eye toward upcoming World Cup qualifying matches.
Winning the Gold Cup, the championship of soccer's North America, Central America and the Caribbean region, is nice, but the World Cup is the ultimate goal.
After the U.S. team stumbled through the group stage of the Gold Cup, Arena made the maximum permitted six roster changes, bringing in tested veterans in a renewed focus on the tournament at hand.
In the end, the strategy was golden. Jordan Morris' 88th-minute strike from 16 yards sailed inside the right post, giving the USA a 2-1 victory over Jamaica in the Gold Cup final Wednesday at Levi's Stadium.
Jozy Altidore's free-kick goal in the 45th minute put the U.S. in front, but Je-Vaughn Watson equalized for Jamaica in the 50th minute off a corner kick.
In the final minutes, a misdirected Jamaican clearance was knocked down by U.S. super-sub Clint Dempsey near the penalty spot. Morris was there to boot a right-footed shot past four defenders and goalkeeper Dwayne Miller.
Mid-tournament additions Altidore, Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Darlington Nagbe and goalie Tim Howard all played key roles in helping the U.S. earn its sixth Gold Cup title. Only Mexico, with seven, has more Gold Cup championships.
"We had a tournament where we scored by far the most goals of any team, were second in goals conceded, got five wins and used 27 players," Arena said. "It was an exercise that was outstanding for our program. Certainly not perfect, but for what we were trying to accomplish, we (succeeded at) that.
"We've made progress, but have a long way to go. Certainly, we need to integrate our (absent European-based) players, which is difficult. ... I've got to find the right blend. We're a long way from qualifying for a World Cup, and that's the objective for sure."
Ending the summer with a trophy in hand was an uncertain prospect in the final minutes Wednesday, before Morris redeemed himself from an earlier error.
Jamaica's tying goal came when Kemar Lawrence bent a corner kick toward the far post, where Watson got around Morris to volley home a short shot.
After the game, Arena shared a private moment with Morris, congratulating the Seattle Sounders forward on atoning with his goal.
"Huge relief," Morris said of scoring the winner. "You never want to be the guy that let the team down. For me, I was just trying to come back and make an impact, and I was glad to be able to do that."
Morris' goal was greeted with a far different reaction on the opposing bench.
"It was like a dagger in the heart," Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said. "But again, this is football. If you look in the semifinal against Mexico, the same thing happened in that game (when Jamaica scored an 88th-minute winner)."
The game's first goal came just before halftime when U.S. captain Bradley was fouled in the middle of the field, around 30 yards from the goal. Altidore bent the ensuing free kick over the wall and into the top left corner of the net.
Miller, who replaced injured starter Andre Blake earlier in the first half, got his fingertips to the ball but couldn't keep it out of the net.
The first real sight on goal for either team came in the 19th minute -- and the play cost Jamaica its captain, Blake, due to an ugly looking hand injury.
Altidore fired a 25-yard shot from a central position, and Blake made a flying save to his left. The rebound fell to Blake's feet, and the United States' Kellyn Acosta crashed into Blake in an attempt to put the rebound on net.
Blake scrambled the ball away with help from Jamaican defenders, but his right hand took the brunt of the collision. After a lengthy stoppage in which the medical staff assessed him, the Philadelphia Union goalie was replaced by Miller.
Blake said after the game that he needed seven stitches to close a cut between his right index and middle fingers. The stitches will be removed in 10 days, and he will reassess his status for the Union at that point.
Before exiting, Blake was arguably the top player in the Gold Cup, leading Jamaica to three shutouts, including a 1-0 win over Mexico in the semifinals. He was credited with two saves in the final.
Arena improved his record to 9-0-5 since returning as the U.S. coach in November, and he became the first coach to win three Gold Cup titles. His first game back was a 6-0 victory over Honduras in March, six miles away from Levi's Stadium in San Jose, Calif.
Now, the U.S. squad looks ahead to four World Cup qualifying games in September and October. The Americans are in third place in CONCACAF qualifying, with only the top three teams assured of a spot in Russia next summer.
"We've celebrating this, but we have to more on soon and get ready for the next round of qualifying," Morris said. "There are going to be some big games. We know what we have to do, and I think the guys are excited to get going.''
U.S. captain Michael Bradley won the Golden Ball as the tournament's MVP. Jamaica's Andre Blake won the Golden Glove as the top goalie -- accepting the trophy with his injured hand bandaged.
Canada's Alphonso Davies got the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer. Davies, Martinique's Kevin Parsemain and the United States' Jordan Morris each scored three goals.
Aside from the United States and Mexico, the only country to win a Gold Cup title was Canada (2000).
The United States improved to 15-2-8 against Jamaica, 12-1-3 vs. the Reggae Boyz on U.S. soil. The only Jamaica win in the United States was in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals.
Bruce Arena has a 6-0-5 record vs. Jamaica as the U.S. coach.