Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
EAST HARTFORD, Conn.– In a tightly-contested match between two teams not budging in a battle of tactics and organized defending, the U.S. Men’s National Team were going to need a special sequence to become the first team to score a goal against Costa Rica in four months.
That special sequence took 82 minutes to find, but the Americans did finally find it, with Brek Shea capping a pair of outstanding passes by Joe Corona and Landon Donovan to finish off a game-winning goal in the U.S. team’s 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
The victory, a record eighth-straight for the Americans, sets them up with a Gold Cup quarterfinal showdown vs. El Salvador in Baltimore on Sunday.
U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson saved the night for the Americans when he made a dazzling save on a 82nd-minute shot from Carlos Johnson. Corona quickly found Donovan upfield with a long pass and Donovan spotted Shea making a lung-busting run up the middle of the field and delivered a perfect pass to him.
Shea did the rest, slotting his shot past Patrick Pemberton to give the Americans the lead and help erase the bad memories of his awful 45-minute performance vs. Cuba.
“To be honest, no I didn’t,” Shea said when asked if he thought he would be called to play vs. Costa Rica. “I still prepared as if I would, because you never know, and thankfully I did.
“Just makes me feel good that I got out there and erased last game,” Shea said. “Because the only way I’m going to be able to erase those was to get back out there.”
Johnson started the game-winning play when he denied Carlos Johnson’s goal-bound header with a stunning reaction save. Corona’s quick thinking led to a vital pass to Donovan on the right flank, and the U.S. career leader in assists quickly spotted Shea’s sprint down the field, and behind a Costa Rica defense that was slow to get back. Donovan’s inch-perfect pass caught Shea in stride, and after taking a touch, Shea slotted home the vital chance for the first goal of his national team career.
“It was like a blur. Not a fast blur, but like a slow motion,” Shea said. “I had tons of time. my only thought was making sure I had that first touch, and it didn’t bounce or, you know, how things have been going lately it might have hit my knee or something.
“I’m just glad it went in.”
The U.S. went out and tried to play attacking soccer from the opening whistle, but breaking down Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 defensive shell proved extremely difficult. The result was a real tactical battle, with the Ticos flooding the middle, and the U.S. countering by trying to work the flanks.
The match was a tightly-contested encounter all night, with Costa Rica’s stingy defense keeping the U.S. attack under wraps with a five-man back-line and heavy pressure from midfield that didn’t give the Americans much space in the attacking half of the field.
Chances were few and far between, with Chris Wondolowski and Donovan struggling for service in the first half as Costa Rica’s five-man defense, which at times saw nine players defending and pressing the ball.
“It’s like Groundhog’s Day with these teams,” said Landon Donovan. “They all just want to play defense for 90 minutes. Costa Rica is a lot better at it than Belize and Cuba are.
“They had to win the game to win the group, so it was strange that they wanted to play that way, but I think it shows how they feel about us,” Donovan said. “In the end it’s nice to win the game. I think the performance was solid.”
The second half saw things open up a bit more, but the U.S. still didn’t find real chances until later in the second half, as substitutes Herculez Gomez, Shea and Corona helped breath some life into the offense.
The match looked like it would turn in the 55th minute, when Pemberton handled as Landon Donovan shot outside of the penalty area, but referee Courtney Campbell issued a yellow card instead of a straight red card. Most likely because of the fact Donovan’s shot was struck right at Pemberton’s chest (Pemberton raised his hands in front of his chest and blocked the shot with his hands two feet outside the penalty area).
Jose Torres nearly scored on the ensuing free kick, curling a perfect left-footed free kick that was heading for the top right corner of the goal before Pemberton reacted well and pulled off a diving one-handed save.
The U.S. finally found the winner in the 81st minute immediately after Sean Johnson pulled off a stunning save to tip Carlos Johnson’s header off the crossbar. Corona fed a long pass to Donovan, who quick chipped a perfect pass into the path of Shea, who converted the match-winning chance.
“I think we saw an entertaining game, a game that we pushed towards the end in order to win it, and the team really deserves a huge compliment,” Klinsmann said. “Because we could have taken the easy (way out) in saying ‘you know what, we’re first in the group and a tie is fine,’ but a tie is not fine with us, so the team pushed it, grinded it until the last minute, and deserved another goal, and a beautiful combination there, and therefore, i’m obviously happy.
“First place, nine points, and you can see the players have chemistry developing that’s fun to watch.”
What did you think of the match? Who impressed you on the U.S. team? See the Americans winning the Gold Cup? Hoping for another USA-Costa Rica showdown in the Gold Cup semifinals?
Share your thoughts below.