EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - U.S. national coach Jurgen Klinsmann has plenty of faith in his players, so much that he started a reserve goalkeeper in a vital CONCACAF Gold Cup game and brought in an underachieving player off the bench.
And guess what? Both of them came up big when it counted.
Within a span of 18 seconds, keeper Sean Johnson saved a point-blank header by Carlos Johnson and Brek Shea then scored off a counterattack to lift the Americans to a 1-0 win over Costa Rica to secure the Group C title at Rentschler Field last night.
The Americans (3-0-0, 9 points) will play El Salvador in the quarterfinals in Baltimore on Saturday. Costa Rica (2-1-0, 6) meets Honduras in the second game of the doubleheader. The win also extended the Americans' record winning streak to eight games and snapped Costa Rica's shutout streak at 785 minutes, dating to a 1-0 U.S. win in a World Cup qualifier in March during a snowstorm in Colorado.
"The team really deserves a huge compliment," Klinsmann said. "We could have taken it easy and said, you know what, we are first anyway in a group and a tie's fine. But a tie is not fine for us. So the team . . . grinded until the last minute."
Mere seconds after Johnson's big save, Shea, who had entered the game only six minutes earlier, converted the lone goal, beating goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton from 15 yards after midfielder Landon Donovan provided him a perfect centering feed on the counterattack.
Shea was coming off a poor first half in a 4-1 win over Cuba in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday, so poor that he was pulled at halftime.
When asked if he thought Klinsmann would use him, he replied: "I still prepare the same way, but honestly, no."
Yet, Klinsmann stuck with him.
"We have a lot of young players coming through the ranks," Klinsmann said. "All these players, we need to carefully build them and support them when things go wrong. Eventually it will pay off."
It paid off Tuesday night.
"To finish off a sequence in a game as important as it was to us to get the victory and win the group, it was fantastic," goalkeeper Johnson said.
Added Donovan about Shea's goal: "He felt bad about his performance. You can tell how from the reaction from us how happy it was for him to get that goal."