The United States played Costa Rica last night in what proved to be the US men's national team's first competitive match so far in the Gold Cup. And for 82 minutes, the game sucked. The Americans only needed a draw to finish first in the group, and for much of the match, they were content to dominate possession, passing the ball around aimlessly at times, while the Costa Ricans sat back in the shadow of their own goal.
It looked to end a bore draw until the 82nd minute, when Costa Rica pressed the attack and won a corner. Celso Borges swung in a ball to the back post, and Costa Rican defender Carlos Johnson skied above everyone to power a head into the top corner.
The header looked like a goal. It was supposed to be a goal. But for all our flaws as a soccer nation—and they are legion—we produce a whole, whole lot of good goalkeepers. And so Sean Johnson, US Soccer's fourth- or fifth-best keeper who's almost definitely not going to next year's World Cup, was agile enough to get his fingertips on the shot and deflect it off the post and into the air.
This is where it got fun. After a scramble, American substitute Joe Corona headed the ball out of immediate danger, pushed out of the box, and then recovered the ball again after a Costa Rican botched a pass. He immediately played a looping pass to Landon Donovan, who'd drifted out to the right wing, where there were acres of space. Donovan played a perfect first-time pass between the Costa Rican sweeper and a defender in pursuit of the play to substitute Brek Shea, who shifted the ball to his left and finished the counter attack.
This was a beautiful goal. If you're a fan of soccer, specifically American soccer, this goal should make you smile. As we've written before, US Soccer's strongest and most dangerous when countering. And this is because for all their flaws, they have horses on their team, and their best athletes can run in a straight line faster than most other countries' best athletes.
Donovan—possibly the best American to ever kick a soccer ball and only on the field in the first place because he decided to go on a Cambodian Rumspringa in the middle of World Cup Qualifying and now has to once again prove himself worthy of a plane ticket to Brazil by dominating the Gold Cup alongside the USA B-team—is a horse. And Shea, for all his flaws—many of which were on display in the USMNT's last match against Cuba, when he started the game, turned the ball over seemingly every time he touched it, was subbed at half, maybe hurt his chances of going to the World Cup, and then trended for hours on Twitter after the game was over (this is a Gold Cup game against fucking Cuba we're talking about)—is a horse.
So with that in mind, look again at how much ground Donovan covered to get in position for Corona's pass. And then look at Shea, who ran nearly 100 yards from his own goalmouth before even touching the ball. Shea is probably the best athlete on the squad. Once he saw the play developing inside his own half, you see him dig in and take off on a full sprint to get open for Donovan's through ball. Few players in the world can hang with him in a straight line over that distance. And no one's catching him from behind.
Let's also talk about Donovan's pass. It was gorgeous. But more impressive was the speed of thought involved. From what we can tell, Shea wasn't even in Donovan's field of vision until a split second before he received Corona's ball on the wing. But he peeked across just as the ball approached, saw Shea streaking and, played a beautifully weighted pass with his first touch into Shea's path.
The entire play, from the Costa Rican turnover to Shea hitting the back of the net, covered 85 yards. It took nine seconds.
This is what this team does best. The players win the ball on defense and then counter. And more often than not, the counter attack starts when Donovan drifts wide to receive a pass in space.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, let's not. This is the CONCACAF Gold Cup we're talking about, and the competition consists of either really bad teams like Belize and Canada, or pretty good teams' reserves. And yet.
Donovan's back, y'all. He's playing with confidence, he's been destroying teams throughout the tournament, and he's earned a run with Dempsey, Altidore, Bradley, and them in the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers. Last night's goal itself was a vintage American goal. The USMNT can't do many things at a world class level, but they can counter with a clinical ruthlessness, and so it's immensely important and encouraging when they do.
Still, this isn't a team that's anywhere close to good enough to win a World Cup. But after a string of good performances, they're already all but qualified for the tournament. And based on those performances, as well as tonight's execution, it's starting to feel like, at the very least, the USMNT can ruin a couple vacations come next June.