EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Brek Shea didn’t expect to get off the bench Tuesday night. When he did, he grabbed the role of hero for the United States.
Shea, who struggled in an earlier Gold Cup appearance, scored his first international goal off a feed from Landon Donovan in the 82nd minute, giving the United States a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica and the top spot in its 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 victory, 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.
“I still prepare the same way, but honestly, no,” he added when asked if he thought coach Jurgen Klinsmann would use him.
Klinsmann did call on Shea, showing faith in a player who has had his ups and downs in the national program.
“We have a lot of young players coming through the ranks,” Klinsmann said. “All these players, we need to carefully build them and support them when things go wrong. Eventually, it will pay off.”
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 an 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. Klinsmann’s charge 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.”
Notes: The other quarterfinals have Mexico vs. Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba vs. Panama on Saturday in Atlanta. … Costa Rica had won eight straight internationals. … The shutout was the first against the Ticos in 12 Gold Cup matches. … The United States is 13-12-6 all-time against Costa Rica.