Clint Dempsey walked away with the game ball for one of the few times in his career. With his first international hat trick, he boosted the United States to a 6-0 rout over Cuba on Saturday and into its eighth straight CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal.
Dempsey put the Americans ahead with a fourth-minute header, converted a penalty kick in the 64th and added the final goal in the 78th.
In Wednesday's semifinal at Atlanta, the Americans play Jamaica, which beat Haiti 1-0 in the second game of the doubleheader.
"Habits carry over: scoring goals, getting a clean sheet, people getting assists," Dempsey said. "That confidence, definitely it grows in the team. And as the tournament goes on, people are getting stronger as a group."
Dempsey has scored a tournament-high six times, and his 47 international goals are 10 behind Landon Donovan's American record.
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"I didn't know that it was his first hat trick. It took him a long time," quipped U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who never had a three-goal game in his celebrated international career for Germany.
Gyasi Zardes (15th minute), Aron Johannsson (32nd) and Omar Gonzalez (45th) also scored as the Americans built a 4-0 halftime lead against a Cuban team depleted by five absent players who may have defected. Before a pro-U.S. crowd of 37,994, the Americans outshot the Cubans 24-7.
"After a couple shaky performances in the group, we came out here and dominated the game," Johannsson said.
Now 32, Dempsey said he does not take home that many mementoes. He has played up top in recent years under Klinsmann after being used as a withdrawn forward and a wide midfielder by Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley.
"He's always been a striker mentality," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "He's a guy who is hungry and determined to make big plays, hungry and determined to score goals. And that's always been him. It doesn't really matter whether he's lined up as an out-and-out striker, as a second striker, a little bit underneath somebody else, even at times under my dad when he and Landon played tilted wide."
It was more than 90 degrees on the field and sunny for the 5 p.m. kickoff, causing Costa Rican referee Henry Bejarano to call for a water break after the third goal. With its highest victory margin in the championship of soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean region, the U.S. improved to 8-1 in Gold Cup quarterfinals, the only blemish a penalty-kicks loss to Colombia in 2000.
Cuba, which has a history of defections at sporting events, listed five of its 23 players as absent: goalkeeper Arael Arguellez, midfielders Dario Suarez, Aricheel Hernandez and Ariel Martinez; and forward Keiler Garcia. The Cubans, ranked 104th, have not reached the World Cup since 1938 and have been eliminated by Curacao in qualifying for the 2018 tournament.
"The players that aren't here now, they don't really many anything to us because they've chosen their path," Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez said through a translator.
Left back Fabian Johnson sparked the opening goal, playing a cross that went through to the other side of the field. Zardes played the ball back to Timmy Chandler, who with his left foot lofted it 30 yards to Dempsey for an 8-yard header past goalkeeper Diosvelis Guerra.
Johnson's 25-yard pass from the flank allowed Zardes, who had burst pass the defense, to volley in with his right foot from 6 yards. Given space, Bradley played a 50-yard pass to Johannsson, who ran onto the ball, took a touch and chipped Guerra from the edge of the 18-yard box.
Gonzalez, who played for the University of Maryland, made it 4-0 with his first international goal, poking the ball in from 3 yards after Johannsson headed down Bradley's corner kick.
"It was pretty hot, and once I got my goal I was a little too tired to celebrate," Gonzalez said.
Dempsey's penalty kick was awarded when Angel Horta pulled on Johannsson's jersey in the penalty area. Dempsey scored sliding with his right foot from 7 yards in the 78th off a pass from Bradley.
"He's hungry for goal," Klinsmann said. "So he has two more meals ahead of him."