BALTIMORE — Eddie Johnson traveled some 2,500 miles over five hours Thursday to rejoin the U.S. national soccer team ahead of Sunday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against El Salvador at sold-out M&T Bank Stadium.
He traversed 50 yards and needed just 14 seconds to ensure a trip to Dallas.
Johnson sprinted onto the field as a substitute in the 60th minute, positioned himself for a corner kick, then scored on a six-yard header. Just like that, on a player’s first touch of the game, an affair that hung in the balance was put to rest.
The sudden-impact goal relieved pressure and opened the gates on a 5-1 victory, which sent the Americans to the semifinals of the biennial regional championship for the 11th time in 12 tries.
“It’s the easy way to come into the game,” he said, beaming. Johnson, employed by MLS’s Seattle Sounders, was among three regulars from the World Cup qualifying campaign summoned after the Gold Cup’s group matches.
The Americans will carry a program-record nine-game winning streak into Wednesday’s semifinal at Cowboys Stadium against Honduras, which defeated Costa Rica, 1-0. Andy Najar, a former D.C. United player from Alexandria’s Edison High, scored on a 49th-minute header for Honduras.
Mexico and Panama will collide in the second game of the doubleheader. The title game is next Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The Americans have scored 16 goals in their first four tournament games, albeit against largely weak opposition. Facing El Salvador, a spirited but overmatched side, they could have had 10.
But after scoring twice inside 30 minutes, Juergen Klinsmann’s squad squandered numerous opportunities and allowed El Salvador, backed by a large percentage of the 70,540 in attendance, to start believing again.
“We missed a moment in the first half to kill it off,” Klinsmann said, “so we had to hang on for a little bit longer.”
Rodolfo Zelaya’s 39th-minute penalty kick carved into the lead, and if not for a bad miss by Kevin Santamaria shortly after intermission, the match would have been level.
“We probably should have had five goals in the first half, and then next thing you know, they are getting some chances,” said midfielder Landon Donovan, who finished with one goal and three assists and played a secondary role in the other. “It woke us up a little bit.”
Johnson came to the rescue — making a beeline from sideline to six-yard line. Donovan and Jose Torres worked a short corner kick, with Donovan crossing to Johnson for a powerful header and his 16th U.S. goal.
El Salvador (1-16-5 in the all-time series) was just about done. Donovan left no doubts in the 78th minute, latching onto Johnson’s flick of goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s goal kick and rounding keeper Dagoberto Portillo for his 54th international goal.
In the pouring rain, the goal deluge continued. Donovan crossed to Mikkel Diskerud for an angled header in the 83rd minute.
Johnson’s goal was the second off a short corner kick. The first came in the 21st minute when a well-designed sequence freed Donovan for a cross from the end line. Clarence Goodson (W.T. Woodson High, University of Maryland) one-timed from five yards for his fifth career international goal. In an effort to draw out the packed-in Salvadorans, Klinsmann had emphasized playing short corners. “We almost made it mandatory,” he said.
After Rimando made a pair of sensational saves, the Americans stretched the lead in the 29th minute when Joe Corona struck from 17 yards.
Seconds after the restart, Donovan butchered a breakaway — the first of several bungled opportunities. Portillo’s work stymied the Americans — Michael Parkhurst’s angled blast struck him in the face — but faulty finishing was more culpable.
“We were upset with ourselves that we had plenty of opportunities to put goals away,” Goodson said. “Realistically, we should have done a better job in the first half and made it three or four to nothing.”
El Salvador seized advantage. Zelaya crossed the penalty area, dodging one, two, three, four challenges while probing for a shot opportunity. DaMarcus Beasley impeded the run with a bump, resulting in a penalty kick that Zelaya converted with a cheeky chip to the center of the net. He scored all four of his team’s goals in the tournament.
Johnson and the Americans had a ruthless reply.
“We are getting better and better with every game” in the tournament, Donovan said. “The difference today was scoring early goals, and even though they got a goal back, we still kept going. To score five goals is a bonus.”