After struggling with the national team recently, the two young players took advantage of their playing time against Costa Rica in the final group game of the competition.EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Exiting the United States locker room to address reporters at Rentschler Field, Brek Shea's brief grin on his face pointed to the relief of putting over a year of poor form behind him.
The towering U.S. winger delivered in the clutch, scoring his first international goal on a dramatic game-winner against Costa Rica in a 1-0 victory in the Gold Cup group stage. The moment ended what has been 15 months of mostly disappointment on both the country and club level for Shea, whose struggles started during the USA's shocking exit from Olympic qualifying.
Now, reflecting on arguably the biggest moment of his career, Shea's quiet confidence was clear.
"It's good, that's soccer. You'll have good days and bad days and I've had a lot of down days lately. Today was good for me and it puts all of that [criticism] behind me," Shea said.
"It feels good because a lot of people spoke a lot of smack."
Shea wasn't alone in having a chance to right previous wrongs.
Sean Johnson surrendered the game-winner to El Salvador on a saveable shot in his previous appearance for the Stars and Stripes. Finally given a chance to prove himself again, the goalkeeper didn't disappoint, making several big saves and interceptions in the final moments against Costa Rica, including the key stop that ignited the game's deciding goal.
Johnson, who plays for the Chicago Fire, hasn't shared the struggles that Shea has had on a club level but acknowledged that he was happy that his national team coaching staff showed faith in him by giving him a start over the team's Gold Cup No. 1 Nick Rimando.
"The coaches had confidence in me to get the job done. Whenever you're called upon, you just want to be at your best and get a result," Johnson stated.
With the U.S. only needing a draw to top its group, Jurgen Klinsmann admitted that he saw the team's match against Costa Rica as an opportunity to give valuable minutes to Shea and Johnson and see what they could offer. He explained that after their recent disappointments, it was important to bring both along slowly before giving them chances again.
"We're happy for them because they deserve opportunities," Klinsmann said. "A lot of young players that you saw compete in the Olympic qualifiers, having that disappointment, all of these players we need to carefully build them, help them and support them when they have a bad game.
"When there's an opportunity like today where there's not much at stake, [it's important] giving them a taste of these kind of battles. It's really important even if it's just for 20-25 minutes. You have to make them understand that they can only get better through a lot of work."
Shea and Johnson's resilience in crucial moments even impressed long-time veterans Landon Donovan and current team captain DeMarcus Beasley. Donovan believed that Shea probably was under a lot of pressure once he received his pass in front of goal but he calmly executed in a pressure-filled situation.
"After the other day, you could tell he felt bad about his performance," Donovan said. "You could tell by our reactions how happy we were that he got that goal and what it meant for him."
Beasley agreed with Donovan and was especially happy for Shea considering his recent stretch.
"I'm proud of both of them, especially for Brek. Brek gets a lot more heat than Sean does because he plays in England and he's a guy that we look to," Beasley explained. "We know that he has the tools to be a world-class player and he showed that tonight with his composure and a goal."
Both Shea and Johnson may have just bought themselves more time with the U.S.