CHICAGO – The United States men's national team collected their fifth CONCACAF Gold Cup title at Soldier Field on Sunday, downing Panama 1-0 thanks to a goal from substitute Brek Shea, scored just seconds after he entered the game.
It will not be remembered as a classic match -- for long periods it was simply unwatchable -- but it extended the American's win streak to eleven games and earned them another piece of domestic hardware.
Shea's goal in the 69th minute finally broke open what had been an interminable match. Coming off a cross from the far right flank from Alejandro Bedoya, Landon Donovan attempted to slip the ball to the far post of Jaime Penedo's net, but missed. Bedoya's ball kept on running and would have ended up in the net had Shea not even put a boot on it.
It was a rare mistake from what had been an organized - if not particularly entertaining - performance from the Canaleros, who frustrated the Americans with a moving 4-4-2 that always seemed to place three men between the ball and the net. Despite enjoying the lion's share of possession, and then a bit more, the Americans were often reduced to passing the ball back and forth in their own half while Gabriel Torres and Blas Perez kept them honest up top.
When the Americans got a rare chance to run at Penedo's net, they were greeted by a red wall that turned every shot into the stands. Donovan, so influential in this Gold Cup, was not a factor in the early running; DaMarcus Beasley was given a torrid time by Marcos Sanchez and struggled to make an impact as well.
Finals of this nature are often ugly creatures. They are tense and teams more often play not to lose than to win. Even by those standards, this one was especially tedious. Soldier Field had seen a massive pre-sale of tickets on the expectation that Mexico would meet the Americans here, but when El Tri were dumped out in the semifinals by Panama, the air went out of the occasion. By the time the first half ended, there were enough bodies in the seats to make the game look respectable, but this final had none of the pomp that organizers and fans had hoped for.
Video: Holden injured in Gold Cup match
That carried over to the play on the field, and it is telling that the biggest moment in the first half came when Stuart Holden went down after a seemingly innocuous challenge from Alberto Quintero. Clutching his oft-injured right knee, Holden was immediately taken to the sideline with what was reported initially as a sprained right knee. Holden will undergo further tests on Monday.
But after the break, the Americans slowly began to turn the screw. Beasley found Donovan all alone in the 55th, and the USA's MVP this tournament was unfortunate to see his snap header cruise wide left. Panama's previously stout high line began to get pushed back, and Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud started to have more time and freedom to spread the ball wide.
The Americans were often the best team in this Gold Cup, and Donovan has been the player of the tournament. But there had been some concern coming into this match because of the state of USA's manager: Jurgen Klinsmann was confined to a skybox after CONCACAF slapped a single-game suspension on him following his sending-off against Honduras in the final. In his stead, Andreas Herzog was the American manager of record, and will take official credit for throwing Shea in at the right time.
Next up for the Americans is a tougher, truer test: they face Costa Rica and Mexico in back-to-back 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and can seal their berth for the 2014 World Cup early should results break their way. While the Yanks will be happy to collect this trophy, the truth is that the real games are yet to come.