And when the U.S. came out of the locker room, that urgency was still there.
"At halftime, I just told them, 'Guys, you've got to speed it up here a level or two,' " said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
The Americans did just that, scoring three second-half goals to beat Cuba 4-1 and advance to the Gold Cup quarterfinals. The victory was the seventh in a row for the U.S., matching the country's best-ever mark, a run that ended with the 2007 Gold Cup title.
Klinsmann expected a tough test from a defensive-minded Cuba, particularly in the first half.
"These types of games, you've got to do double as much work as the opponent," he said, "because they sit deep … and it makes it tough to break them down."
In the first half, while the Americans looked content to possess the ball and make safe passes, it was the Cubans who struck first.
A streaking Ariel Martinez Gonzales beat U.S. left back Edgar Castillo to the end line and found a teammate waiting inside the box. United States captain Oguchi Onyewu was too late closing out on Jose Ciprian Alfonso, who netted a terrific goal.
"We lost focus for a minute and they countered," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando, one of three Real Salt Lake players who started the match. "[But] the one thing you don't have to do is panic there."
With time winding down, Castillo was upended while running with the ball in the box, setting up Donovan's penalty kick. The equalizer was Donovan's 52nd international goal.
The U.S. took control in the second half. After a handful of near-misses, midfielder Joe Corona broke the stalemate in the 60th minute, when a ball fell to his feet at the top of the 18-yard box and he blasted it past Cuban keeper Odelin Molina for his first international goal.
"As the game kept going, we wore them down and we managed to open those spaces," Corona said.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman helped seal the U.S. victory with his second assist to forward Chris Wondolowski in as many games, causing the hometown crowd to chant Beckerman's name.
"Both those crosses that he's whipped in have been just superb," the forward said of Beckerman. "It makes my job easy, where I just pick out a certain run and just try to get across my defender."
Wondolowski later tapped in one more in the 85th minute, his sixth goal for the U.S. in his last three matches.
The U.S. next faces Costa Rica and RSL forward Alvaro Saborio as group play continues. After dominating Belize and Cuba, Klinsmann called Costa Rica the next benchmark for his team.
"We need now games where we are eye to eye with the opponent," Klinsmann said, "where we know it's going to come down to the wire."