Donovan lifts USA to Gold Cup final

BY foxsports • July 24, 2013

No matter the chore, no matter the challenge, the United States men’s national team has proved irrefutable during this 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Honduras huffed and puffed, but in the cavernous Cowboys Stadium, the Americans never wobbled, booking their place in the final with a 3-1 win.

Everything has been tried to throw them off their game. Defensiveness, rough play and all the dirty tricks in the book. But led by a resurgent Landon Donovan, these Americans have reeled off five consecutive victories in this tournament, extending the winning streak started by the A-team in June to a record tenth game. Their performances have grown as the tournament has worn on, and the number of players making a strong case for next year’s FIFA World Cup has multiplied by the game.

And if that makes me sound like a homer or a cheerleader, know that I’m not an American and have been plenty critical of this program over the years. There was much to criticize during head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s first 18 months in charge. But this summer, his body of work with both the A and this B-team has been fairly well beyond reproach. The high pressure, the quick transition, the pacey ball circulation – it’s all coming out of the woodwork. And if some contests haven’t always been super pretty, these new bedrock tenets of the American game have invariably been effective.

“We are just really happy with how things are going,” Klinsmann said following the match. “The first 30 minutes was brilliant football. Brilliant.” If that sounded like hubris and hyperbole, it wasn’t. Such has been the dominance of these Americans.

Against Honduras on Wednesday, it was both pretty and effective.

Ahead of the game, Landon Donovan had warned that this Honduran team would present a different challenge from the other teams the US has faced so far this Gold Cup. It would be sitting in much like Belize, Cuba, Costa Rica and El Salvador did, but it would be doing so while applying high pressure as well. And the physicality the Catrachos apply in disturbing the American flow could be unsettling.

So it proved. Rather than huddle in their own half, or even their own third, Honduras started its defensive press two-thirds of the way up the field. Such pressure left the Americans with less time on the ball than they’ve grown accustomed to. And they adjusted by playing more direct soccer than they have so far this summer. With traffic over the ground mostly clogged, not unlike that around the stadium, the occasional well-timed aerial ball worked wonders in keeping the defense honest.

Wedged in between two good Stuart Holden shots from the edge of the box that just missed their mark, and the time he took an elbow to the face in the box, Clarence Goodson played a deep, penetrating ball to Donovan over the ground. The forward cut back to it and artfully dinked it through the Honduran defense for Eddie Johnson to give chase to. Johnson caught up to it, took a few touches and smashed his shot by the impeachable Donis Escobar and into the net and for the 11th-minute opening goal. In the 27th minute, another high ball was headed on by Johnson. It fell to Alejandro Bedoya, whose performance varied in its effectiveness. But he won the ball in between a pair of Hondurans and flicked it on for Donovan. He chested it down well and swiftly poked it by Escober to double the score.

The Americans continued their toil and pressure into the second half and kept on crafting good looks. Their style remained aspirational, even if they had to resort to pragmatism at times. Holden played long balls, Johnson tried to knock them down, Bedoya ran the right wing and Kyle Beckerman won the ball back where needed.

In the 52nd minute, Honduras briefly turned the game’s narrative around. Marvin Chavez whipped in a free kick and Nery Medina rose over several Americans to head the ball out of the otherwise excellent Nick Rimando’s reach to make it 2-1.

Not a minute later though, a Goodson long ball – one of several sharp and dangerous ones on the day – was headed on by Johnson to Bedoya, who quickly squared it for an unmarked Donovan tap-in for the final 3-1 scoreline. That pushed Donovan’s international tally for the United States to 56 goals and 56 assists – both at least 20 more than the next man. He was as effervescent as he has been all tournament – easily earning his way back into the A-team after a sabbatical – and the rapturous ovation he got when he came off in the 72nd minute was well deserved.

That was true for the win as a whole, in fact. “We had various problems today to overcome the United States,” Honduran head coach Luis Fernando Suarez admitted. “Their technique was very good, they were very aggressive and we were unable to overcome those factors. Unfortunately, they beat us in just about every aspect of the game today.”

This frustrated the Hondurans, however. Overmatched and badly beaten, they resorted to cheap shots in the late going.

“It seemed like they flipped a switch after that 3-1 and they started coming after us,” said Donovan. “You don’t want to see that and your hope in that moment is that the refs protect you.”

When a series of hard fouls went uncalled by match referee Walter Quesada, however, Klinsmann spoke his mind too empathically for the referee’s taste and was ejected in the 87th minute. “I just kind of overboiled it,” Klinsmann said with a chuckle following the game, back to his mellow self. “It was a reaction out of frustration. I apologize for that.”

But even that couldn’t blight the night, for once again, this has proved to be the summer of United States Soccer.