On a night when the USMNT’s attacking players found it difficult to score, someone else needed to step up. Two of the teams defenders came though with flying colors in that regard.
Both Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj found the net for the Yanks in a 2-0 win over El Salvador in front of 31,615 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. The result put the US a win away from their first appearance in the Gold Cup Final since winning the tournament in 2013.
Defenders Steal the Show as USMNT Advance to Gold Cup Semifinals
The Stars and Stripes came into this game with a fairly dominant track record against El Salvador in this tournament. In five previous Gold Cup meetings, they boast a 5-0-0 record and won those games by a combined score of 17-1.
Bruce Arena utilized his entire allotment of six roster changes ahead of the knockout stage. And he didn’t waste time putting them into action. Five of the six made Wednesday’s starting XI. Tim Howard got the nod in goal, Darlington Nagbe and Michael Bradley started in the midfield, while Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore comprised the partnership up top.
The match began at a fairly breakneck pace with both teams trading opportunities. Early on, El Salvador nearly took a shock lead after a poor back pass from Lichaj gave Nelson Bonilla a chance to score. But Howard made a heads up play quickly diagnosing the trouble and getting a hand on the ball to dispossess Bonilla.
The first legitimate US chance to break the deadlock came off a corner kick in the seventh minute. A rebound off the corner came right to Omar Gonzalez who nearly had his second poacher’s goal of the tournament. But El Salvador goalkeeper Derby Carrillo parried his shot away to his left.
Three minutes later, the Yanks found themselves in another precarious situation. Los Cuscatlecos had a set piece opportunity just outside the box to the left of goal. The resulting sequence was a unique training ground play that gave Alexander Larín acres of space at the top of the box. But the US defense held strong blocking his attempt at goal.
The US were the victims of some controversy not long thereafter. In the 17th minute, Gyasi Zardes seemed to time his run well at receiving a pass from Dempsey. But the linesman on the opposite end of the field ruled offsides. Replays appeared to confirm Zardes was, at the very least, in line with the last defender.
Defenders Come Alive
With goals hard to come by from the usual suspects Altidore and Dempsey, someone else needed to step up. Enter Gonzalez. The Pachuca center back, who opened the scoring in a 3-2 win over Martinique in the group stage, did so again in the 41st minute. His header off a Michael Bradley free kick beat Carrillo to make it 1-0.
Defenders certainly played their part in the scoring over the course of the tournament. Matt Miazga’s late header against Nicaragua made it 3-0 and allowed the US to win Group B. And they weren’t done getting their names etched to the score sheet in the first half.
Two minutes into first half stoppage time, Lichaj doubled the Yanks advantage. The right back who plays his club soccer in England’s second tier with Nottingham Forest made a well-timed run down the middle. Dempsey made a beautiful turn into to space and found Lichaj who nutmegged Carrillo to make it 2-0.
Things started to get chippy right out of the locker room for the second half. It began with a studs up challenge on Lichaj from Bonilla. The argument could be made it was deemed red card worthy but referee Drew Fischer didn’t even go to his book.
Even more shocking was an incident that occurred between Henry Romero and Altidore. As the US were preparing to send a corner into the box, the US striker went down writhing in pain. Replays showed Romero not only bit Altidore in the neck, but appeared to grab him in the chest and twist his skin in that area. Once again, the incident drew no form of censure from Fischer.
Despite the win, this was another inconsistent performance from the US. This was especially true in defensive transition where El Salvador had plenty of opportunities to pounce. With the team now among the tournament’s final four, mistakes in defense will more than likely get punished more than they did on Wednesday.
The performance of the knockout round reinforcements was up and down. Howard made a massive stop early to prevent an early El Salvador goal. Nagbe had one of his better games in a USMNT uniform linking things in the midfield. Dempsey provided an assist and looked much improved from his less than impressive outing against Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup Qualifying.
But overall, the team can’t continue rely on defenders in the final third to get results. If the team wants to win this tournament, they need the players tasked with putting the ball into the net to begin doing so on a more consistent basis. That’s especially true of the players brought in for the win-or-go-home part of the competition.
The next challenge for the US on the road towards potentially hoisting their sixth Gold Cup takes place Saturday night against Costa Rica in the semifinals. It will mark the first meeting between the two nations since a 4-0 drubbing in World Cup Qualifying spelled the beginning of the end for Jurgen Klinsmann. Kickoff at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX is set for 10 PM ET.