Three thoughts from the U.S. national team's 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage finale on Tuesday night, its record eighth consecutive victory.
Nobody runs the counter like Landon Donovan -- He may not be as dynamic as he once was and his focus and dedication will always be questioned by some, but Landon Donovan remains indispensable to the U.S. because he's still so lethal on the counterattack. No American who's ever played can unlock an opposing defense at speed like the L.A. Galaxy legend.
It took just one touch from Donovan at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. An alert, 82nd-minute pass down the right flank from midfielder Joe Corona set the play in motion. Donovan read the flight of the ball perfectly, adjusted his body and hit a long, looping cross that beat three Tico defenders and settled perfectly onto Break Shea's left foot. The Stoke City winger finished easily.
Donovan had a relatively quiet match until that moment, but that moment was all he needed. When he's got space in front of him and a defense on the move, there's nobody better. It's worth asking whether there are occasions when the U.S. would be better off retreating a bit and playing a style that gives its all-time leading scorer more opportunities to do what he does best.
A tactical test -- Shea's goal -- his long-awaited first in a U.S. shirt -- punctuated a frustrating evening for an American side that struggled to solve Costa Rica's well-organized defense.
This was a team that had posted seven consecutive shutouts since falling to the U.S., 1-0, in a blizzard outside Denver at the end of March, and they almost had an eighth on Tuesday in Connecticut. The visitors frequently ceded the middle of the field and then smothered the U.S. with a five-man back line that handled crosses well and stymied Donovan and Chris Wondolowski, whose run of six goals in three games ended against tougher opposition.
The U.S. hasn't always handled mid-game tactical adjustments well and Tuesday's squad, playing together as a unit for the first time, labored to find the answer. Mix Diskerud and Jose Torres were among the Americans who played with their heads up and passed with the best of intentions, but as the minutes wore on and the bunker didn't crack it became increasingly apparent that the only way to beat Costa Rica was to draw them out.
The Ticos needed a win to claim the top spot in the group and sent numbers forward on a late corner kick. The U.S. seized its opportunity. Credit should go to goalkeeper Sean Johnson for a big save, Corona for his pass under pressure and to Donovan for recognizing the opportunity to stretch the Costa Ricans with that run down the right.
A deepening depth chart -- Several U.S. players on the fringes of coach Jurgen Klinsmann's first-choice team made a case for their eventual inclusion on Tuesday night.
Diskerud, 22, and Corona, 23, continued to demonstrate their composure and feel for the game in midfield and remain players to watch. Central defenders Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco were impressive. They rarely were caught out of position, were comfortable on the ball and threatened on set pieces. Johnson made several good reaction saves in his first international action in nearly six months while Stuart Holden continued on his road to recovery, playing 90 minutes for the U.S. for the first time since 2010.
Klinsmann's team is balanced, flexible and in good shape heading into Sunday's quarterfinal against El Salvador