EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Faith.
It would be easy for a coach to lose faith in players, especially young ones. They make mistakes. They lose their focus. They do things that can be frustrating, even maddening sometimes.
Sean Johnson and Brek Shea were on the U.S. Under-23 team that failed to qualify for the Olympics last year. Johnson let in a last-gasp soft goal that kept the Americans from London 2012. Shea made a bad decision at the end of that game that helped allow the fiasco to happen.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann could have kept Johnson and Shea far away from Tuesday's Gold Cup group stage finale against Costa Rica. Johnson, the Chicago Fire goalkeeper, is a back-up here to Nick Rimando. And Shea, the Stoke City midfielder, had a difficult (at best) 45 minutes against Cuba last Saturday before being yanked at halftime.
So who was it that got the start in goal on Tuesday? Johnson. And who was it that came on as a second-half sub? Shea. Then the two players repaid Klinsmann's faith by having starring roles in the game's decisive sequence. With the score tied 0-0 in the 82nd minute, Johnson, 24, made a fantastic save on Costa Rica's Carlos Johnson, pushing his header off the crossbar. On the ensuing U.S. break, Landon Donovan found Shea, 23, on a dead run, and the Texan ostrich slammed his shot off goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton and into the Tico net.
It was all the U.S. needed to win its eighth straight game, an all-time record in the 100-year history of U.S. Soccer. And it highlighted the importance of sticking with young players who make mistakes.
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"We're happy for them, because they deserve opportunities," said Klinsmann afterward of Johnson and Shea. "All these players, we need to carefully build them and help them and support them when things go wrong, when they have a bad game. And sooner or later it will pay off."
"It gives me tons of confidence that he believes in me still after my last game," said Shea, who didn't lose his nerve when found himself in on the goalie with the game on the line. "I just had to take that first touch and not let it bounce off my shin or miss it. I had to have composure and put it away."
Faith. It isn't just for players in their early 20s. Stuart Holden is 27. But even though Holden has had two years of injuries, and even though he has yet to play 90 minutes in a senior club game since he came back, Klinsmann has brought him in to both summer national team camps. On Tuesday he played all 90 minutes, the first time he'd done so for the U.S. since 2010.
"It really is nice when a coach shows faith in you," said Holden afterward. "It gives you confidence and belief in yourself and the team. If that's the mentality of this team going forward, it's going to carry us pretty far."
"Stuart is a work in progress, as simple as that," said Klinsmann. "After his season was over in England, we had many talks. We said we'd take it one day at a time. He's a work-a-holic. He can't get enough. So we have to build him, and that's what we're doing. Today going 90 minutes and even in the last 10 minutes he was still chasing down people. It was great to see. He gives us a very valuable option in midfield going forward."
That path now takes the U.S. to the Gold Cup quarterfinals against El Salvador in Baltimore on Sunday. And while three more wins still stand between this U.S. team and a trophy, a valuable lesson came on Tuesday. You underestimate the faith on this team at your peril.
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