Landon Donovan and Brek Shea combined for a late goal as the United States finished group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Tuesday at Rentschler Field in Hartford.
Shea, the Stoke City winger who had such a tough time in the United States’ weekend win over Cuba, supplied Tuesday’s only goal about six minutes after his second-half entrance. His calm finish in the 83rd minute, his first in a U.S. shirt, may go a long way to getting the big left winger back on track. But it was Donovan’s aggressive choice to play a perfect, early ball from a wide position for a breaking Shea on the left that made the play.
With previous group stage wins over Belize and Cuba, the United States finishes first in Group C and will now meet El Salvador in Sunday’s tournament quarterfinals in Baltimore.
The United States was the only team it the 12-team regional tournament to finish group play undefeated.
Although neither team used its top personnel Tuesday, United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann did sprinkle a few starters into the lineup, emphasizing his desire to win and finish atop the group even though both teams at the University of Connecticut Huskies’ football stadium had already secured passage into the tournament’s elimination round.
Donovan, the team’s all-time leader in goals and assists, and recent scoring star Chris Wondolowski were both in Tuesday’s starting 11. Costa Rica’s scoring star, Alvaro Saborio, was left on the bench but did come into the hot, muggy night late.
It was easily the best test of the three U.S. group stage contests. Ten minutes in, the United States’ defense had already been put under greater pressure than Belize and Cuba had mustered combined in the first two group matches.
Scoring opportunities were scarce for both sides. Over the first 45 minutes, Costa Rica directed two half chances toward young U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson, filling in for Gold Cup starter Nick Rimando. The United States had perhaps one chance before the break, a little back heel flick from Wondolowski that didn’t bother Costa Rican goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton.
Pemberton created the game’s most controversial instance in the 56th minute when he charged out of goal to intercept a through ball and then, while still well outside the penalty area, used his hands to knock down a shot. In an moment that typically calls for an immediate red cad, referee Courtney Campbell opted only for a caution.
Jose Torre’s ensuing free kick nearly sneaked under the crossbar, but Pemberton saved the left-footed effort nicely. Most of the night, however, the United States struggled to find opportunities against the Ticos’ five-man back line. Donovan’s savvy pass was the key to the breakthrough, putting Shea in alone against Pemberton.
“I know Brek felt bad about his performance the other night,” Donovan told Fox Soccer Channel minutes after Tuesday’s final whistle. “Full credit to Jurgen for letting him play again. Full credit to Brek for being ready. He made the play that made the difference. … As the tournament goes on, we’re going to need more guys to step up.”
At the other end, Sean Johnson’s big save on a Costa Rican header turned out to be quite important, serving to initiate the counter attack that provide Tuesday’s only goal.
The win extended the United States’ record in the group phase to 28-1-2 all-time. The team improved to 9-2-2 overall in 2013 and to 8-1-1 in games on U.S. soil this year.
U.S. LINEUP: Sean Johnson; Michael Parkhurst, Michael Orozco, Clarence Goodson, DaMarcus Beasley; Alejandro Bedoya (Joe Corona, 80th), Mix Diskerud, Stuart Holden, Jose Torres (Brek Shea, 77th); Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski (Herculez Gomez, 77th).