EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Brek Shea played 45 minutes against Cuba on Saturday, and that was it. He was replaced at the start of the second half.
U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann had seen enough.
Shea, who has always had the support and faith of Klinsmann, looked not just off, but out of it. He was losing possessions, making bad passes and on more than a few occasions playing at a slower, choppy pace. It was arguably the younger star’s worst national team appearance.
On Tuesday, it appeared Shea had put it behind him.
With about eight minutes left in the Americans’ final Gold Cup group stage game with Costa Rica, Shea took one touch on a perfectly placed pass from Landon Donovan and struck it into the back of the net. He had come into the game five minutes earlier as a sub.
The goal gave Shea his first international goal and more importantly for the Americans a 1-0 victory over growing rival Costa Rica in front of 25,432 at Rentschler Field.
“I think we saw an entertaining game – a game we pushed to the end in order to win it,” Klinsmann said. “The team really deserves a huge compliment. We could have taken the easier (way) and said we were first anyway in the group and tie is fine. But a tie is not fine with us.”
The Americans, who had already earned the berth in the quarterfinals after beating Cuba on Saturday, play El Salvador in Baltimore on Sunday. The U.S. finished play in Group C with a 3-0 record, nine points and a goal differential of 11-2. It was a thorough effort, capped off by a dramatic finish. It also gave the Americans their longest win streak at eight games.
“You can see there is a chemistry developing and that is fun to watch,” Klinsmann said.
Costa Rica (2-1) also advanced to the knockout round and plays Honduras Sunday.
It was the American’s second straight 1-0 victory over Costa Rica, but this one came in completely different weather. The last game, a World Cup qualifier in March, came in the snow. On Tuesday, the temperature at the start of the game was 93.
“The team pushed it and grinded until the last minute and deserved another goal,” Klinsmann said.
Shea’s goal happened only after U.S. goalie Sean Johnson made a beautiful save 18 seconds earlier. Johnson, another young star, punched out a header from Carlos Johnson right after a perfect corner from Celso Borges.
The ball bounced around in the box until the U.S. was able to get it out and to Joe Corona in the midfield. With Donovan breaking down the right wing, Corona got control and found the most prolific goal-scorer for the U.S. national team in stride.
But instead of cutting in and making room for a shot, Donovan one-timed the ball to an open Shea at the top of the box.
“I couldn’t ask for a better ball,” Shea said. “I thought I should just be there if (Donovan) sees me and he did.”
Shea, with goalie Patrick Pemberton beat, took one touch on the ball and put it to the side of the approaching goalie.
“I think it is just muscle memory, just get that first touch and try and score,” Shea said.
Costa Rica had a pair of shots in the final minutes of the first half, but Johnson handled both comfortably, including one off a direct kick right to the center of the goal.
It was a sloppy first half, with limited quality chances for either side as Costa Rica sat back. But it didn’t take long for the action to heat up in the second half.
In the 54th minute, Pemberton stopped a shot from Chris Wondolowski outside the box after colliding with his own defender. Pemberton was given a yellow card for the stop and the Americans were awarded a free kick just outside the box.
Jose Torres curled the shot to the top corner of the near post, but Pemberton was able to just get his hand on it. The loose ball bounced to Donovan, who failed to get enough on the shot to truly test Pemberton.
Costa Rica later got its own free kick when Stuart Holden was called for a late sliding tackle. But much like the Americans, they couldn’t piece it together. Borges sent the free kick clear of the frame with 30 minutes left in the second half.
Borges got another chance 10 minutes later in the second half on a corner. But the ball was punched out by Johnson and then cleared by Holden. Costa Rica followed shortly after on another corner, which was cleared by Mix Diskerud.
Damarcus Beasley, who is wearing the captain’s armband for the first time in his long national team career, found himself in the middle of the action early.
Only two minutes into the game, the veteran provided the Americans with its first chance of the half when he sent a shot from just inside the box wide of the goal. Then four minutes later, he had to walk off the field after taking the knee of Costa Rican Rodney Wallace to the head. Despite a few lingering moments on the ground, Beasley walked off and then returned to play shortly.
The Americans were lucky he did.
With Costa Rica pressing high on the American defense, Beasley was a stabilizing factor on defense, including in the 80th minute when he cleared a dangerous through ball out of bounds.
In the first game of the doubleheader, Ariel Martinez had three goals and Jeniel Molina scored in stoppage time to help Cuba beat Belize 4-0 in their final game of Group C competition in the Gold Cup.
Cuba (1-2) advanced to the Gold Cup quarterfinals based on goal differential. It entered the match needing four goals to move on to the next round of competition ahead of Martinque as one of the top third-place teams.
The victory was the first for Cuba in 14 Gold Cup games and gives the team its first quarterfinal appearance since 2003.
Molina put home the fourth goal late in stoppage time to help Cuba advance. Belize (0-3) was eliminated with the defeat.
In the final minutes, Cuba did everything it could to move on.
Barely two minutes before Molina’s dramatic strike, Cuba had another goal called back on an off-sides call and throughout the final 10 minutes it sent several shots onto Belize goalie Woodrow West.
©2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services