Semi-Tough: A Look Back at 11 U.S. Gold Cup Semifinals
July 21, 2015
WHEN THE U.S. FACES OFF against Jamaica Wednesday evening in Atlanta (6pm ET; Fox Sports 1, UniMas), it will mark the 12th time in 13 Gold Cups that the U.S. has played in the tournament semifinals. The penultimate match has been kind to the Americans as they’ve advanced to the final in nine of the 11 previous semis they’ve played in.
For those wondering, the one time the U.S. didn’t make the semifinals was in 2000. That year, the Yanks faced off against guest-country Colombia in the quarterfinals in Miami and fell on penalty kicks after playing to a 2-2 draw.
As we’ll showcase below, the Gold Cup semis have provided plenty of theater over the years, offering up historical performances, near-misses, and plenty of controversy.
1991: A Rivalry With Mexico Begins
The original Dos a Cero! For the only time in Gold Cup history, the U.S. and Mexico met in the semifinals of the 1991 competition. At the time, the Mexicans did not view their northern neighbor as the big rival they do now. And for good reason. Still a nascent soccer nation at the time and just a year removed from its first World Cup in 40 years, the U.S. had beaten Mexico just once in 28 prior meetings dating back to 1937.
But that all changed on a July day at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Something that would become a calling card for the U.S., a set-piece goal, proved crucial.
Early in the second half half, Hugo Perez, with a head of long curly hair that would have made a musketeer jealous, hit a well-placed free kick into the box, where it was headed by Marcelo Balboa—so young that his trademark back-length black hair was still just a mere mullet.
Balboa’s flick fell to fellow defender John Doyle, who hit a perfect volley from the right side of the box that just edged inside the near post: U.S. 1, Mexico 0. (So unknown was Doyle at the time, so unexpected was his goal, that the graphic that accompanied the replays of his strike spelled his name incorrectly.)
In the 64th minute Peter Vermes showed the U.S. was more than just work-rate, fitness, and set-pieces, flashing enough skill to earn a “golazo” call from the announcers when he dribbled up the right flank, cut inside, and unleashed a left-footed blast from about 18 yards. Tony Meola, less than two years removed from his sophomore season at the University of Virginia, pitched the shutout to silence the pro-Mexico crowd of 41,000.
So shocking was this result that afterward Mexico coach Manuel Lapuente resigned and days later the U.S. beat Honduras in penalty kicks, establishing itself as a new regional power. “That game changed everything for us,” Balboa said. “It showed that we could be a power in CONCACAF but also showed Mexico that they couldn’t take us for granted anymore.”
1993: A grind with Costa Rica
After getting through the group stage in Dallas with a trio of one-goal wins, the U.S. met Costa Rica - the Central American side that that Bora Milutinovic took to the knockout stages at the 1990 World Cup - in the semifinals in the Cotton Bowl in the summer of '93.
By this point Milutinovic was in his third season with the U.S. and he had begun shaping the roster to resemble what he’d use when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, including adding Roy Wegerle, Thomas Dooley, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas, and Joe-Max Moore.
While players like Lalas, Jones, and Moore were just out of college, several others were the rare established pros that Bora had brought into the fold since taking over.
One such veteran was Cle Kooiman, a former indoor player who had been one of the first non-Latino Americans to carve a pro career in Mexico, where he became the captain at Cruz Azul.
Not surprisingly, this one was close, and went to overtime scoreless when Jones got loose on the right flank in the 103rd minute and hit a great cross that Kooiman one-timed past Tico goalkeeper Erick Lonnis for the golden goal. It has proven to be one of the most dramatic strikes in U.S. Gold Cup history.
2002: Close Call, Canada
When the U.S. reached the semifinals in 2002, it did so having never lost a Gold Cup match to a CONCACAF team besides Mexico. So the Americans were the obvious favorites when they met Canada, the defending champions, in the Rose Bowl.
The U.S. came into the game having beaten its previous four opponents by a combined score of 7-1. But with a sparse crowd of about 7,000, Canada held the U.S. scoreless despite needing goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld to make 15 saves. (Check out the 2:05 mark of the video below to see just how close the U.S. came to repeatedly scoring.)
But after having done so for 120 minutes, Hirschfeld couldn’t keep the U.S. off the board in penalty kicks as Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, Jeff Agoos, and Clint Mathis all converted while Kasey Keller stopped Kevin McKenna and Tam Nsaliwa on the first and fourth shots and the U.S. advanced.
A trio of tight matches with Brazil
It took CONCACAF a while to figure out how best to manage their new showcase tournament, with the number of teams, the frequency of the event, and the time of year it was held all fluctuating. And between 1996 and 2005, the Gold Cup featured guest teams from outside the region.
In January of 1996, weeks before the start of something called Major League Soccer, the Gold Cup was held for the third time with 10 teams and one of them was Brazil, at the time the reigning World Cup champions and a huge draw on both television and in stadiums.
The U.S. was just a few months removed from an epic run to the Copa America semifinals, where it had beaten Chile, Argentina, and gotten by Mexico in penalty kicks. Between their form the previous summer and the start of their own first division, the Yanks came into the semifinal with Brazil believing that anything was possible. After Claudio Reyna replaced Thomas Dooley midway through the first half, that confidence was justified.
With Reyna running things in central midfield, the U.S. outplayed Brazil—which was using mostly a U-23 side in preparation for that year’s Olympics—and the Yanks had a golden chance to take the lead late in the first half when a nice through-ball from John Harkes sent Eric Wynalda alone in front of an open net.
But the two U.S. icons who would share many things would not count a goal against Brazil among them as Wynalda, then the top American forward, didn’t get enough on his shot and it was cleared by Carlinhos.
Then, in the 80th minute, disaster struck. Balboa tried to clear a cross from the left flank from Savio and instead struck it past a helpless Keller for an own goal and the U.S. fell 1-0, marking the first time in three tries that it failed to make the Gold Cup final.
Afterward the U.S. players knew they had let a golden chance slip away, with head coach Steve Sampson telling reporters, “You have a team that knows they should have won and one that is very disappointed that they didn't.”
Two years later, Brazil was back, this time with its senior team. In February the two sides clashed on a cold and damp Tuesday night at the Coliseum and Brazil dominated from the get-go, with Romario constantly testing the U.S. defense.
But Keller turned in one of the greatest performances by a goalkeeper—American, or otherwise—and repeatedly stymied the Brazilians, particularly Romario. The best player in the 1994 World Cup was denied multiple times by outstanding Keller saves—the Olympia, Wash., native was credited with 10 for the game—and at one point so flummoxed by a Keller saved that he reached out in admiration and shook his hand, mid-game.
“He was on another planet that day,” Lalas, who had a key block of a Romario shot in that game, said recently. “It was as good a performance as you can see in our sport, especially considering the level of opposition.”
Keller’s heroics were begging for a U.S. hero at the other end of the field and it came in the form of Predrag Radosavljevic. Five minutes after entering in the 60th minute, the man better known as Preki got a pass from Wynalda, took four touches to create space, and set up his famous left peg and unleashed a 23-yard laser that beat Taffarel near-post.
Only about 12,000 people were in the stands that night but so legendary has this game become that many more claim to have been there.
It was the Americans' first—and, to date, only—win over Brazil and one of the highlights of Sampson’s tenure as U.S. coach. It also led to his demise as the upset dramatically raised U.S. expectations for that summer’s World Cup, only to see the Americans go three-and-out.
After four tournaments in even years in the winter, in 2003 the Gold Cup switched back to its current odd-year and summer format. Brazil was again a guest and again it was the defending world champions but brought a young team, with this one featuring some up-and-comers like Kaka, Maicon, Diego and Robinho.
Playing in the heat and humidity of the Orange Bowl, the more experienced U.S. side took a second-half lead when Carlos Bocanegra, one of the few Americans in the game who wasn’t at the previous year’s World Cup, outjumped a Brazilian defender to get his head on a long CReyna free kick to give the Americans the lead.
Unlike in 1998, however, Keller couldn’t keep the Brazilians at bay. The U.S. entered the game with eight straight Gold Cup shutouts, dating back to the previous tournament, and it looked like that streak might conttinue when Kaka hit the woodwork twice. But in the 89th minute, substitute Ewerthon beat Cory Gibbs only to have his shot blocked by Keller but the rebound fell to Kaka and this time the posts couldn’t save the U.S.
In overtime, Diego sent a shot goal-bound but Gibbs blocked it with his hand. Diego converted the ensuing penalty kick and with Gibbs sent off and the U.S. fading in the heat, a tying goal never came.
The U.S. hasn’t lost a semifinal match in the Gold Cup since.
2007: Canadian Controversy
Our neighbors to the north are still pissed about this one. Playing at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half when Frankie Hejduk finished a Donovan pass in the 39th minute. Just before halftime, Canadian goalkeeper Pat Onstad dropped DaMarcus Beasley in the penalty area and Donovan converted.
The U.S. let the Canadians back into the match when substitute Ian Hume beat Keller to make it 2-1. The Canadians started swarming and things went from bad to worse in the 88th minute when Michael Bradley, then just 19, got a foolish red card for after a tackle from behind on Julian DeGuzman.
With momentum in its favor, Canada's confidence grew and in added time a pass caromed off Oguchi Onyewu’s head and fell to Atiba Hutchinson, who calmly beat Keller for the apparent tying goal. But, despite replays showing Hutchinson even with the U.S. backline when the initial pass was made, Mexican referee Benito Archundia ruled no goal. Judge for yourself.
Onyewu “clearly headed the ball down in the box,” Canada coach Stephen Hart said afterwards. “It can not be offside.”
2011: Playing Against Panama
The U.S. entered the 2011 semifinal with Panama with major questions being asked of it. After all, earlier in the tournament’s group stage, Panama had shocked the U.S. 2-1 in Tampa, the only time in Gold Cup history the U.S. lost before the knockout stage.
With the U.S. continuing to struggle, Bob Bradley, in what turned-out to be his second-to-last game as head coach, made some bold moves. Having benched Donovan after he’d missed time to attend his sister’s wedding earlier in the tournament, Bradley inserted Donovan at halftime for Sacha Kljestan. In the 66th minute, with the U.S. still struggling and needing a spark, Bradley then turned to the end of his bench and gave former phenom Freddy Adu his first cap in two years.
The move paid almost instant dividends. In the 77th minute Adu collected a pass on the U.S. side of the center circle, lifted his head, and played a long, diagonal pass down the right flank for Donovan, who ran onto it and hit Clint Dempsey with a perfect cross that Dempsey finished just inside the far post for the game’s only goal.
"It was a great ball from Freddy to open up Landon," Dempsey said. "All I had to do was put my foot on it."
2005, 2009, 2013: A New Rivalry Is Born
When the U.S. squeaked by Honduras 2-1 to open the group stage of this year’s Gold Cup, there was a reason the Americans were pleased to have escaped with a win. After all, the Catrachos had been to the last two World Cups, were the last team to beat the U.S. at home in World Cup qualifying (back in 2001), and been to the semifinals of four of the past five Gold Cups.
In three of those, Honduras faced off against the U.S.—beginning in 2005 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
In the 30th minute of that contest a sloppy pass by Frankie Hejduk was intercepted by Milton Nunez, who proceeded to split the U.S. defense with a nice through ball that gave Ivan Guerrero acres of space. Guerrero calmly beat Keller to give the Hondurans the lead.
It didn’t seem like the visitors would relinquish it but in the 86th minute John O’Brien reminded us what he could when healthy, running on to a poor clearance—caused by pressure from Donovan—and one-timing the tying goal.
In stoppage time, with overtime looming, Donovan sent a free kick into the box for his former Bradenton teammate Onyewu. Just a few games into his national team tenure, Onyewu easily headed in the winning goal.
"A lot of teams don't keep fighting there," Donovan, told reporters afterward. "A lot teams kind of throw the towel in and say that's it."
Four years later, the same teams met again in the semifinals in Chicago as Bob Bradley used a mostly experimental lineup that featured the likes of Troy Perkins, Jay Heaps, Logan Pause, and Kyle Beckerman (who entered the tournament with just three caps).
The U.S. had already beaten Honduras 2-0 in the group stage of the 2009 Gold Cup and it duplicated that scoreliine in the semifinal. Perkins had to make a nice save in the 20th minute to deny Marvin Chavez in a game that stayed close throughout. Just before the break Clarence Goodson converted a Stuart Holden corner. After some tense moments in the second half that saw Perkins deny Carlos Costly in the 85th minute, Kenny Cooper tapped in a Holden pass just before the final whistle.
Fast-forward to two years ago, this time in the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium. In Jurgen Klinsmann’s first Gold Cup, Eddie Johnson and Donovan scored early in the first half to eliminate most of Honduras’ hopes. The Catrachos briefly got a lifeline when Nery Medina scored in the 52nd but before the crowd had settled down, Donovan struck a minute later to give the U.S. a 3-1 lead that never changed.
The goal was Donovan’s Gold Cup-leading fifth of the tournament and the 56th and second-to-last of his national team career.
So tell us—what is your favorite semifinal moment? The Comments section is open for business.
Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.