Brek Shea scored his first international goal off a feed from Landon Donovan in the 82nd minute Tuesday night, giving the United States a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica and the top spot in its Gold Cup group.
Seconds after Sean Johnson made a brilliant save off a corner kick, Joe Corona cleared the ball, setting up the winning sequence. The veteran Donovan, trying to work his way back into a starring role on the national team after a self-imposed hiatus, took the ball on the right side. He quickly spotted Shea, who came on just five minutes earlier, streaking down the middle.
Donovan's pass hit Shea in stride, and the Stoke City player sent a left-footed shot from 15 yards off goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton for the winner, the Americans' eighth straight, a team record.
"It's good," Shea said, downplaying his massive contribution after struggling earlier in the tournament. "First U.S. goal, only goal of the game, it wins the group. Really good."
The Americans will play El Salvador in the quarterfinals Sunday in Baltimore, while Costa Rica meets Honduras in the knockout round.
Shea's goal broke a 785-minute string without being scored upon for Costa Rica. It followed Johnson, considered a fourth-stringer at best in the net for the United States, making a clutch stop on Carlos Johnson.
"Once I made the save, we just tried to get it out of there," Sean Johnson said. "Then I saw it cleared and we're breaking the other way. It created and opportunity and we finished it."
The match was played in slightly different conditions than the last time the nations met. That was in a blizzard in Denver, with the United States edging Costa Rica 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier. Tuesday night, there was plenty of moisture on the pitch just before kickoff, but it came from sprinklers trying to keep the turf in shape during a northeastern heat wave.
With both sides already having clinched moving on in the CONCACAF championship, not much happened offensively until late in the match in front of 25,432.
Early in the second half, Costa Rica captain Pemberton came out of his net, collided with a teammate outside the area and then had the ball hit him squarely in the hands. He was given only a yellow card, however, then immediately made saves on Jose Torres' curling free kick and Donovan's shot off a rebound.
That sequence opened up play for a while, but then it deteriorated into sloppiness and some roughness in midfield between teams with no love lost.
U.S. captain DaMarcus Beasley took a nasty spill and was run over by Rodney Wallace early in the match. A woozy Beasley sat out three minutes before returning — and almost immediately stripped the ball from Wallace.
His teammates struggled to link up, showing their lack of familiarity with each other, through the first 20 minutes. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's charge to is to find the right combinations to get the Americans into the World Cup — they lead CONCACAF qualifying through six games with 13 points, while Costa Rica is next with 11 — and then perform well in Brazil. He's using the Gold Cup to test as many players as possible, while giving most of the national team regulars who have done so well in qualifying a breather.
"It's good giving them a taste of these kind of battles," Klinsmann said of using multiple lineups. "We'll keep on building this and giving them opportunities whenever possible."
Neither goalkeeper was particularly threatened until U.S. defender Clarence Goodson got free on the left side of the box late in the first half. His left-footed drive was deflected out of bounds by the defense.
Costa Rica played a tightly packed defensive style for much of the match, but coach Jorge Luis Pinto felt his players handled themselves well.
"The only thing we lacked was getting the goal," Pinto said. "The United States got the goal, we didn't."
Cuba ends drought
Ariel Martinez ended Cuba's long Gold Cup drought with three goals Tuesday, and Jeniel Molina's last-second score lifted the Cubans into the quarterfinals with a 4-0 rout of overmatched Belize.
It was Cuba's first victory in 14 Gold Cup games, including 12 losses. The Cubans finished the opening round 1-2 after losses to the United States and Costa Rica, but the four-goal victory allowed them to advance over Martinique as one of the top third-place teams.
"For me, it was like winning the World Cup," Martinez said. "It is a great achievement for us and it made me very happy."
Belize (0-3), which finished with 10 men, was eliminated.
'For me, it was like winning the World Cup.'— Cuban soccer player Ariel Martinez
After Martinez completed his hat trick, the Cubans pressed for the fourth goal that would keep them in the tournament. They came close a handful of times, then Molina put in a short right-footed shot and his teammates stormed off the bench into the corner of the pitch to mob him.
Cuba advanced one other time, in 2003.
"It was a great game for us," Cuba coach Walter Benitez said. "We put in as much effort as we needed to. It was a tremendous result."
By far the best player on the field, Martinez connected with left-footed drives in the 38th and 63rd minutes. He completed the hat trick with a short right-footed shot in the 84th, and Cuba threatened several times to get a fourth. Each time a Cuban failed to hit the mark, he either held his head in frustration or stomped the ground.
But deep into injury time, with nearly every Cuban player in Belize's box, Liban Perez headed a pass that Molina converted.
In the first half, Martinez moved from right wing toward the middle just outside the penalty area, then unleashed a shot from 18 yards that beat diving goalkeeper Woodrow West to his right just inside the post.
Martinez provides spark
Cuba had nearly every good chance in the first half, but was frustrated by a lack of finishing touch until Martinez's brilliant goal. Before beating West, Martinez had been stymied a half-dozen times by the Belize keeper, including twice in one minute.
Wood remained sharp for much of the second half, but was no match for Martinez's slaloming move through the defence for a 12-yard shot to make it 2-0.
Perez's pass freed Martinez for his third score, and suddenly Cuba sensed a chance to advance. It waited until the dying moments to seize the opportunity and will play Panama on Saturday in Atlanta.
Belize's first Gold Cup concluded with three losses by a combined 11-1 margin, and a quick trip back to Central America. The Belizeans made news last week when two players, Wood and Ian Gaynair, said they were approached to fix a game against the United States, but rejected the offer.
Belize finished short-handed when Gaynair drew his second yellow card in the 81st minute. Cuba struck twice after that.