SANDY, Utah -- Athletes are a superstitious lot. After U.S. forward Chris Wondolowski had a hat-trick against Belize in the Gold Cup while wearing a jersey with an extra W in his last name, Wondo and U.S. kit man Jesse Bignami hatched a plan. They made sure that extra W was ironed on the *inside* of his jersey, just below the neckline, so that at least Wondo knew it was there.
"All athletes have a little screw loose and are superstitious in one way or another," Wondo said with a smile.
And it must have worked. Wondolowski had two more goals in a 4-1 win against Cuba here on Saturday, staking an early claim for the Gold Cup golden boot with five goals so far in the tournament. In a game where the U.S. struggled in the first half and even fell behind 1-0, it was the energy-inducing second-half performances of Wondolowski, Landon Donovan and Joe Corona that turned this game into a laugher.
But let's be honest: Belize and Cuba are not, say, Germany. Or even Costa Rica, which should provide a much higher degree of difficulty when the U.S. meets the Ticos on Tuesday in East Hartford, Conn. The Costa Ricans are in second place behind the U.S. in the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal, and they, too, are perfect after two Gold Cup games.
"Costa Rica is the first real benchmark for us [in the Gold Cup]," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after the game. "We're looking forward to that match. We need games where we're eye to eye with the opponents, where we know it's going to go down to the wire."
Even Wondolowski said yes when I asked him if all these goals he's scoring would mean more if they were coming against opponents like Costa Rica. "Definitely," he responded. "You just want to continue to keep it going, and you hope it snowballs."
Wait ... snowballs? Was that a Freudian slip? After all, the Costa Ricans will want some serious payback after they felt like they got jobbed in the famous SnowClásico World Cup qualifier the last time these two teams played in Denver. The U.S. will win Group C with a tie, but you can be certain the Americans would prefer to set a new all-time U.S. record with their eighth straight victory.
The U.S. has already qualified for the Gold Cup quarterfinals in Baltimore next Saturday, but the team knows it needs to play better for 90 minutes than it did against Cuba. Brek Shea in particular was a mess on the left flank, shanking crosses and making unforced errors before he was yanked for José Torres at halftime. Donovan, who was active and influential again, spent a lot of time creating havoc from that left side in the second half.
When I asked Klinsmann if going down a goal to Cuba was a wake-up call, he nodded his head. "It definitely helps you to get things a bit more urgent if you go down a goal out of nothing," he said. "Then [the U.S.] worked their way back. The equalizer came before halftime, and at halftime I told them, 'Guys, we have to speed it up here a level or two.' There was a lot of movement off the ball, better than in the first half, and then we mentioned [Cuba] would also get tired. Then the goals came."
After Wondo's hat-trick on Tuesday, he was disappointed to be replaced by Hérculez Gómez in the starting lineup against Cuba, Klinsmann said. "But I told him to keep your goals for the second half. He's a joy to work with, and he's hungry and working a lot. It's not only that he has the instinct on where the ball will be hopefully in the box; it's also the runs he makes that open things up and open some channels for the other guys."
The question now is whether Wondolowski has done enough to earn the start against Costa Rica ahead of Gómez—or whether Klinsmann might find a way to get both players on the field at the same time. The easier part of the Gold Cup is over, and now the games will have a sharper competitive edge.
And no snow. We think. "We want to play on the grass, and I'm sure they do too," U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando joked after Saturday's game. "Let's hope it doesn't snow in Hartford."