Rio Tinto Stadium was the site of the second matchday of Group C in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Looking to follow-up on a dominant performance against Belize, the United States Men’s National Team took its time finding its stride in Saturday’s match. Despite falling behind 1-0 to Cuba in the first half, the Americans responded with four unanswered goals to punch their ticket to the quarterfinals, 4-1.
One of the biggest questions heading into the Gold Cup tournament was whether Jurgen Klinsmann would get Stuart Holden back into the starting lineup. In this match the Bolton Wanderers midfielder, who has struggled with major injuries in recent years, paired with Kyle Beckerman in the center of midfield to start.
Klinsmann rotated a great deal of his lineup from the win over Belize. Red-hot Chris Wondolowski was left on the bench to begin the match, with Klinsmann choosing to try Herculez Gomez up front along with Landon Donovan in a two-forward set. The other change in attack was on the left with Stoke City’s Brek Shea replacing Jose Torres. At the back, Oguchi Onyewu returned to the lineup alongside Union alumnus Michael Orozco Fiscal. Tony Beltran and Edgar Castillo started on the corners of the defense, spelling Michael Parkhurst and DaMarcus Beasley, respectively.
Klinsmann has shaped his squad into a bunch that likes to hold the ball. Where they can struggle at times is finding that final ball of quality, as teams like Cuba prefer to remain organized and limit prime real estate. That described much of the first half for the United States, who attempted only 4 shots in the 45 minutes prior to stoppage time.
That possession was often squandered by Shea. If he hoped to use this start to impress Klinsmann and new Stoke manager Mark Hughes, he instead put in the most disappointing effort for the Yanks. He lost possession 14 times, had no successful dribbles, and completed only 62 percent of his passes. He was subbed out to start the second half, and may have his work cut out for him to get back into the team.
Through the half-hour mark, the only real chance for either team came off a corner kick. Joe Corona flicked on a Landon Donovan corner, but it went wide of the target. Part of Cuba’s gameplan was to get under Gomez’ skin, and it worked. The striker was hacked down and tangled with a number of times, with Canadian referee David Gantar being slow to come to Gomez’s defense. As the half wore on, you could see some doubts creep into the US play, especially those guys who were making their first start of the month for the team.
Cuba’s biggest threat came down their right side. Castillo has been much maligned as a left back and in the 36th minute his weakness bled through. Ariel Martinez attacked Castillo and beat him to the end-line. He chipped the ball back to the center of the area, and striker Jose Alfonso Ciprian struck a beautiful volley that stunned the crowd in Sandy. Nick Rimando could do nothing to prevent the opening goal, a real shock considering the opposition.
After the goal, the US looked shtunned, and it took a little time for them to regroup. Stoppage time saw the momentum change, based on some clever interplay between Donovan and Castillo. The left-back worked a nice give-and-go with Donovan in the area, and Castillo broke through into space. When Yenier Marquez took down the Tijuana defender, Gantar did not hesitate in pointing to the spot. Donovan took calmly struck his penalty kick low and to his left, and goalkeeper Odelin Molina guessed wrong, leaving the two sides level heading into the intermission.
With a match against Belize coming up, a point certainly looked good for Cuba coming out of the half, and their bunker tactics only increased with the rsumption of play. The introduction of Torres for the US allowed Castillo to become more involved down the left, since Torres prefers to pinch towards the center more. The US continued to build well from the back, using Beckerman as their primary director with Mix Diskerud being rested. Holden played as more of a straight attacking midfielder than a playmaker.
With Shea already off and Gomez struggling to make his mark up front, Klinsmann decided to pull the trigger twice in succession in the 58th minute with Holden coming off for Diskerud, and Gomez making way for Wondolowski. With Wondolowski coming off a hat trick against Belize, Klinsmann was looking for the magic touch he suddenly located for the national team.
But before the substitution happened, Joe Corona made some magic happen of his own. As Castillo dribbled towards the area, he crossed to Holden. Cuba’s Alberto Gomez made a play on the ball, but it bounced right into the path of Corona. His first-time shot curled artfully around the goalkeeper Molina, delivering a lead for the US from which they never looked back.
From the time the subs came on, it was clear that Wondo was in the house. In the 66th minute, Beltran dribbled the ball back from the corner, and slid a pass to Beckerman. At the edge of the area, he floated a cross near post, and Wondolowski redirected it past Molina under tight marking to stake the two goal lead.
Rimando was active when he needed to be on the night, and in the second half the only real test he faced was a long shot by Ariel Martinez that didn’t trouble him much at all.
The San Jose forward wouldn’t stop there, though it took until the final six minutes of regulation to get his second. Castillo again helped to start the scoring play, making a run towards the area and laying a ball off to Torres. The left midfielder played the ball Castillo’s way, who had continued his run behind the defense. He chested it down towards Wondolowski, and after having his first stab blocked by a Cuban defender, he deposited the follow-up for the final score line.
Trap Game: With two easy victories to lead into this match, the U.S. seemed content with their ability to play football around the pitch and keep Cuba hemmed in. While it was tough to believe that the result was in any doubt, even with an early goal, Klinsmann may have learned that he needs to be more careful in his squad rotation. It’s good to keep players fresh, but he may have mixed in too many second-choice players. For instance, if he wanted to see how Holden would hold up to a start, he probably should have kept Torres on the left as a guy who can create in Diskerud’s absence.
The Left Back Conundrum: Edgar Castillo is a guy who confounds US fans. While he was instrumental in starting the U.S. attack from the back, he struggled at times with the pace of Martinez. He garners most of the responsibility for the Cuba goal, and there is little evidence that he should get more starts at left back if Beasley is in full fitness. He would be a much better option as a substitute for Torres in left midfield, instead of Shea.
Gooch: Today may have told us what we need to know about Oguchi Onyewu. You have to feel for the guy—he’s been a solid defender in the past for the US, but he lost track of Ciprian on the Cuba goal, and this was a match where the Lions really didn’t attack much. He’s a powerful guy on set pieces, and can usually bust up aerial attacks coming his way, but his mobility is limited and the competition will only get tougher in this tournament.
It Wasn’t The W: With a properly spelled surname on his shirt, Chris Wondolowski again showed why San Jose was willing to bump his salary to Designated Player status. His touches are often few, but when he does get his foot or head to the ball, it can have a profound impact on the score line. Shaking off the ghosts of past failures for the National Team was huge for his confidence—but good service helps, something he hasn’t gotten this year at Buck Shaw. Wondo has to be wondering if he can take a couple of these midfielders back to the Bay Area.
No matter how it happened, 6 points in two games means advancement. A match against Costa Rica on Tuesday night will test Klinsmann as to how straight he wants to play this tournament. If he wants to get all nine points out of the group stage he can afford to start a first choice XI and still have sufficient time to rest them before next Sunday’s quarterfinal. If he wants to use the match as an opportunity to test the bench for possible options in the latter rounds, he can. He would only be risking first place seeding.
While this tournament does not have the cachet of earlier editions due to World Cup Qualifying and the Confederations Cup, it has produced some stunning results. Canada’s complete meltdown has been as shocking as Mexico’s loss to Panama. There is still the chance for some real fireworks in the final matchday of group play. Belize and Cuba will be waiting to see if Martinique or El Salvador leave them a window to grab the final third place spot in the quarterfinals. If Mexico can roll Martinique big, or Haiti stifles El Salvador, it could give that final Group C match some meaning
Tuesday’s Group C matches will take place at Rentschler Field outside of Hartford, Connecticut. The Belize/Cuba matchup will be at 5:30 PM ET, and the US will face Costa Rica at 8 PM. Both matches can be viewed on Fox Soccer and Univision.