EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – If this game was meaningless, you'd never have known it from head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's reaction to Brek Shea's 82nd minute winner in the 1-0 CONCACAF Gold Cup victory over Costa Rica. He burst towards the sideline and windmilled his balled fists wildly as Shea raced towards the frenzied fans, flanked by his teammates who'd found a last wind in the hot and humid and heavy summer air.
The break-away came just 18 seconds after Sean Johnson had made a cat-like save off the line for the Americans off of a Carlos Johnson header on a Costa Rican corner. Joe Corona found Landon Donovan on the right, who sprung Shea for a wide-open run at Patrick Pemberton's goal. And even for the big, blond Texan's dubious form, the chance was an unmissable one.
"Joe hit me a great pass," recalled Donovan after the game. "I looked up, saw Brek running. It's not hard to miss that hair streaking down the other side of the field."
Mix Diskerud (R) helped the United States defeat Costa Rica on Tuesday night (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images).
So that's how the USA broke their all-time winning streak record. In 2007, they had won seven games in a row, six of them coming in the Gold Cup. On Tuesday, they won their eighth by wrapping up their Gold Cup group stage with a third win.
Yet for all the late merriment, this was not the "benchmark" Jurgen Klinsmann had hoped to set ahead of the game. In this dead rubber, pitting teams that had both won their games with Belize and Cuba and were consequently already through to the quarterfinals, the objective was to post progress and make a statement. This, then, was a test of mettle and all those other cliches.
"It was a game that we pushed towards the end to win it," said Klinsmann. "We could have taken it easy, we could have said, 'You know what? We are first anyway in the group. And a tie is fine.' But a tie is not fine with us. So the team pushed and they grinded it out until the last minute."
But if the USA's performance in this drab affair was supposed to yield confidence, they could only have derived any from the result. Because there wasn't a whole lot else to take away from it.
This wasn't entirely the fault of the Americans. Costa Rican head coach Jorge Luis Pinto had announced that they would approach this game aggressively and play for the win. They still felt aggrieved by their 1-0 loss amid a Denver snow blizzard against the U.S.'s A-team back in March, a World Cup qualifier they felt never should have been played in those conditions. And they would have hoped to send a message for the re-match in Costa Rica in September. But the Ticos offered up little by way of positive play.
"I knew that they had to come out and win," said striker Chris Wondolowski. "I thought they would take maybe a little bit more of an offensive approach but I also knew that's kind of how they've played us in the past."
"Even back in Denver they played with a back five already," added Klinsmann. "That shows a lot of respect for us, that's what we told the players. They've got quality players who can always hurt you but they're coming out with a very, very defensive-minded shape."
The Americans, deployed in a flat 4-4-2 formation, had a wretched time of breaking through the Costa Rican lines. With their foes bunkered into what amounted to a 5-4-1 with a high defensive line, there simply wasn't the room for the USA to establish a rhythm, let alone reliable service to the strike partnership of Donovan and Wondolowski. Instead, they spent the first half slowly knocking their way into the opposing half, only to lose the ball before they got a whiff of the goal. And then, after Costa Rica's counter attack stranded, as it invariably did, they started all over.
Mired in sloppiness, the Yanks hadn't the composure to conclude attacks with thoughtful chances. And rather than impose their will, the threat of conceding whenever the Ticos galloped up the other end often seemed greater than of scoring themselves, so ineffectual were they in the final third.
The second half wasn't a whole lot better. In fact, an almost torpor set in early. Failing to make runs off the ball, the American pace slowed to a crawl as Costa Rica was happy to ride out the game in its own half.
"It's like Groundhog Day with these teams; they all just want to play defense," said Donovan. "Costa Rica is a lot better at it than Belize and Cuba are."
Before Shea's goal, just one real chance had been mustered by either party. In the 55th minute, Costa Rica goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton had been coaxed from his box and subsequently pawed away a Wondolowski shot. Having denied the Americans a clear scoring opportunity by purposely using his hands, he should probably have been expelled from the game. Referee Courtney Campbell made no such decision, however. Jose Torres curled the ensuing free kick towards the near top corner, but Pemberton pushed it off the frame. Donovan then couldn't get enough on the rebound. And so the stalemate remained until they finally broke Costa Rica down in the late going.
"You've gotta find ways," said Klinsmann. "You've got to play and move the ball quickly and wait for these moments that they might do a mistake and open some things. It ends up in a lot, a lot of work. So it's good that they have now five days to recover from that game but it was worth it because it builds the spirit and builds the chemistry."
By virtue of having won their group - a result they would have also achieved with a tie - the Americans avoid Honduras in the quarterfinals in Baltimore on Sunday and will instead face the only marginally weaker El Salvador.
Yet the higher echelon they hoped to lift their collective game to before the knockout round hasn't yet been achieved. The benchmark remains to be set.