Not many players get to play for their country and not many players get to do that in their home stadium, so it was a special day for me. —Tony Beltran
SANDY — It was another rocky start for the U.S. national team at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
It was also another strong finish.
After struggling early against Cuba in a group play match of the CONCACAF Gold Cup — even falling behind in the first half — the United States turned up the intensity in the second half on its way to a convincing 4-1 victory in front of 17,597.
Cuba struck first in the 36th minute on a counterattack, but Landon Donovan equalized on a penalty kick just before halftime, and then Joe Corona scored once and Chris Wondolowski twice over a 28-minute span in the second half en route to the win.
“Overall, the result is what we wanted,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Game was expected to be difficult, especially the first half because they’re sitting so deep with nine players in the box, and you’ve got to find a way to get through that.”
With the victory, the United States improved to 2-0 in Gold Cup group play and extended its overall winning streak to seven. It concludes group play Tuesday against Costa Rica in Hartford, Conn. The Central Americans are also 2-0 in group play after beating Belize 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday evening.
Klinsmann said it will be the first tough test of the tournament for his team.
“Costa Rica is the first real benchmark for us. Everybody has respect for Belize and Cuba, but the benchmark starts with Costa Rica. We are looking forward to that match,” said Klinsmann.
RSL standouts Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Tony Beltran all started and played 90 minutes for the Yanks on Saturday — with Beltran earning his second cap.
“Not many players get to play for their country and not many players get to do that in their home stadium, so it was a special day for me,” said Beltran.
Klinsmann said afterward it took Beltran awhile to settle into the match, but that was realistically the case for all of his teammates.
About five minutes before the match a large rain cloud moved over Rio Tinto Stadium and dumped heavy rain. Klinsmann believes the heavy air afterward negatively impacted several of his players.
“Coming out of the locker room, they had good energy and sometimes it happens the energy’s not there anymore once you start the game. But you’ve got to work yourself into the game, which they eventually did,” said Klinsmann.
Not before Cuba delivered a serious wake-up call.
With the United States enjoying the bulk of the possession, Cuba’s Ariel Pedro Martinez slipped in behind U.S. defender Edgar Castillo on a counterattack, beating him to the end line and sending a cross to Jose Ciprian, whose powerful half volley from close range beat Rimando for the 1-0 lead.
“That was the only way they were going to score. We lost focus for a minute, and they countered. You’ve got to give credit to their wide guy and the guy who got on the end of the ball,” said Rimando.
The Real Salt Lake 'keeper said it was important his team didn’t panic, and it didn’t.
Castillo helped redeem himself shortly before halftime, linking up with Donovan on a combination play that eventually led to Castillo being dragged down in the penalty area. Donovan calmly finished the PK to level the score at 1-1.
At halftime, Klinsmann urged his players to speed things up. It was similar to what he told his team at halftime last month in a World Cup qualifying match against Honduras, which the U.S. eventually won 1-0.
To help spark the attack, Jose Torres was inserted into the match at the half in place of Brek Shea. Torres was an immediate upgrade as Shea was noticeably off his game.
Corona eventually provided the breakthrough the United States needed, curling in a 24-yard shot in the 57th minute for the 2-1 lead.
Wondolowski entered the match a minute later, and he continued his streaky play, scoring in the 60th and 85th minutes to go along with the hat trick he scored against Belize on Tuesday in Portland.
“Wondo has been wonderful. It’s just a joy to see him everyday in training, and now getting his goals that he was waiting such a long time for. And now they’re coming,” said Klinsmann.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.