By THOMAS FLOYD
BALTIMORE — Joe Corona is a man of layered roots, born in Los Angeles to a Mexican father and Salvadoran mother. Three nations to call home, but only one to represent on the field. And in that regard, he’s a prized piece of the U.S. Men’s National Team picture.
In the Gold Cup quarterfinals at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Corona pulled on his native nation’s jersey and faced the motherland. While Landon Donovan grabbed the headlines, scoring a goal and setting up four more, Corona laid claim to the 29th-minute strike that proved to be the winner in the Americans’ 5-1 triumph over El Salvador.
After collecting a pass from Chris Wondolowski at the top of the box, Corona cut to his left and drilled a shot into the lower corner before falling to his knees and pointing to the heavens.
“It was a very special moment,” Corona said. “It was the country that gave birth to my mom. It was very emotional.”
A part of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior squad since May 2012, Corona has found minutes hard to come by in a competitive midfield filled with proven veteran options.
But this experimental Gold Cup team has given Corona the opportunity to prove himself on the international level. In his five caps (four starts) this month, the playmaker has showed off the vision and technical proficiency that has made him a rising star for Club Tijuana in Mexico’s top flight.
“Joe is absolutely coming along,” Klinsmann said. “Joe is a very smart player. He can read the game really well, anticipate it really well. … Joe is now at a point where he understands what we ask and understands that the senior level is a different game.”
Corona’s first international goal was a scorching strike in a 4-1 win against Cuba last weekend. And his clever chip to Donovan sparked the counterattack that ended with Brek Shea’s late winner in a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Tuesday.
As Corona said, “Every time, I play with more confidence.” He displayed that poise against El Salvador, combining well with overlapping right back Michael Parkhurst as the U.S. attack largely flowed through that right flank.
“He created a bunch of chances again, his goal was very well taken,” Donovan said. “Since the first time I saw him a couple years ago, I think he’s grown leaps and bounds, and he keeps getting better and better.”
That development is evident in Corona’s increasing comfort level internationally. On Sunday, the 23-year-old enjoyed a rapport in an interchange-heavy midfield that featured Jose Torres on the opposite flank, Mix Diskerud as a deep-lying playmaker and Donovan in a free role behind the striker.
It was a welcome development for Corona, a player with recognized individual quality but previously unknown adaptability within Klinsmann’s system.
“Joe, he’s conquered a lot,” Torres said. “He’s a great player, and we try to learn a lot from each other, learning each other’s movements. And the good thing is that we understand each other.”
Added Diskerud: “He has great vision, good technique, and he doesn’t lose the ball a lot — I like playing with players like him.”
Although he typically plays a more central role for Tijuana, Corona has grown into his flank position with the U.S., providing width yet pinching inside to dictate possession at opportune moments. Going forward, it’s flexibility that can only help his cause.
So does he feel he’s shown enough to earn A-team minutes come World Cup qualifying?
“I’ve been scoring goals, I feel comfortable with the team now,” Corona said. “It’s been a long process with Jurgen, and every time he’s given me more confidence. So why not?”
The ultimate goal for Corona, of course, is to help the U.S. earn a place at next summer’s World Cup and book a ticket to Brazil as a part of Klinsmann’s 23-man roster.
While his odds of making that team may have seemed dubious before the Gold Cup, Corona’s emergence as a difference-maker over the past two weeks has, at the very least, put him firmly in the conversation.
“If the World Cup was next month, he’d definitely be on it,” said left back DaMarcus Beasley, captain of the Gold Cup squad. “He’s so comfortable on the ball, he’s working for the team defensively, offensively, and he’s chipping in with goals and assists. He’s a guy that’s very skillful.
“We look to get the ball to him — he makes things happen.”