The CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals begin Saturday, and the US will have their chance to put their money where their mouth is Sunday afternoon at “The Bank” in Baltimore, in front of what will likely be a large and divided crowd. In fact, the level of El Salvador support very well could outnumber those clad in red, white and blue Sunday afternoon, as Baltimore and the surrounding area, including Washington D.C., is home to the second largest concentration of El Salvador immigrants in the United States (Los Angeles). Over 70,000 seats have been sold thus far and if the noise created by only 15,000 screaming El Salvador supporters in Miami was any precursor, this could be the most challenging environment the US face in the Gold Cup tournament.
The Americans enter on a historic run of form: winners of their last eight matches for the first time in the history of the federation. And while Tuesday night’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica wasn’t awe-inspiring, it was an example of the expanding depth of the US player pool, as various players who sit on the fringes of World Cup consideration (let alone inclusion) were critical in the victory. Brek Shea’s goal (and Landon Donovan’s brilliant ball) proved that even on a night when the United States suffers for a final ball or a dynamic player who can carve up a tightly bunkered and central defense, the US have weapons to spare off the bench. Meanwhile, Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco-Fiscal provided what was perhaps the most complete performance by a US center back pairing since the upset at the Azteca. Given that the good times are a’rollin’, this is probably as good a time as any for the US to play what in the past was Gold Cup normalcy: a “road game” on home soil. And given the fact that the United States are better than El Salvador, the Americans should be able to grind through and earn the result they need to advance to the semifinals.
In addition to the crowd, La Selecta do present a few unique challenges, and we’ll explore those and what they mean for the US Sunday afternoon at the home of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Let’s kick the usuals and rhapsodize on the particulars, shall we?
The Series: 22nd meeting. The United States lead 15-1-5. In Gold Cup play, the Yanks lead 4-0, outscoring La Selecta 12-nil, in games played in Boston 2x and Los Angeles 2x, respectively. El Salvador’s lone victory over the United States came in 1992, a 2-0 win in a friendly in El Salvador. In March 2009, La Selecta earned a hard-fought 2-2 draw against the Americans in World Cup qualifying, and this is the last time they have gotten even a point from the Yanks. Obviously, there will be no draw Sunday, as a tie would advance to penalty kicks.
Weather: HOT, like 9 on the “Fabian Johnson misery index”. Upper 80’s and humid for kick- chance of a thunderstorm currently at around 30 percent. Basically, the weather and the crowd will make El Salvador feel right at home.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
New additions. Jurgen Klinsmann means business, and that’s why, as we expected, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are back in the fold for the knockout rounds, along with Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson. Oguchi Onyewu’s 38th “last chance with the national team” is over (it appears, once again, that he “is dead”, so now he’ll have to wait for number 39), and the depth chart at center back suddenly looks a lot more like the full national team, rather than “just the Gold Cup squad.” Gonzalez will join the team only if they advance to the semifinal, and the change was a bit surprising given how well the CB’s have played in the Gold Cup, but I think the “A” team CB’s were brought in in after the group stage because Klinsmann very much wants to win this trophy, and doesn’t know if he can do it without his top-line defense. If either doesn’t look fit, you could easily make a case for Clarence Goodson to keep his place in the starting eleven. He’s looked good this tournament, and he has some recent experience playing aside both Besler and Gonzalez. Goodson seems the more likely of the MOF-Goodson pairing to start Sunday, but all bets are off should the US play El Tri in the final. Goodson’s had some absolutely disastrous outings against Mexico and we all know what happened with Michael Orozco-Fiscal the last time he played El Tri…
As for the other new additions, both Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson are probably looking at starting their tournament on the bench. Johnson could be a wild card though. Klinsmann has shown the trust in Eddie to play him at multiple different attacking positions, none of which are true center forward. Don’t be surprised if Jurgen gives EJ a shot to lead the line up front, something he never gets to do when Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez are in the squad. And for clarification’s sake– Gomez was not sent away because Klinsmann was displeased– he was sent back to Mexico because his team begins play next week, and it was time for him to return to his club obligations. Gordon is an insurance policy due to this change, and Johnson is an insurance policy on top of an insurance policy.
But more than the new faces in the team, watch for how quickly each player on the pitch acclimates to the bigger stage. In the Costa Rica match we saw that guys that are regulars on the World Cup Qualifying squad were much more comfortable and impactful early in the match. Clarence Goodson bossed the eighteen yard box from the start, winning every header and connecting with the ball on seemingly every challenge. His defensive prowess eventually even aided his distribution, as he finally stopped serving long ball punts to Costa Rica around the half-hour mark, settling instead for thoughtful distributions to Jose Torres, who came back to receive the ball in space.
Meanwhile DaMarcus Beasley owned the left side of the field. Guys like Ale-Alejandro Bedoya and Stuart Holden, who are making their respective returns to the national team this tourney, each took about a half to adjust to the lack of time and space they were being given. Holden’s secondary distributions were surprisingly impressive, given his reluctance to find space and the ball for about an hour of the match, and his inability to truly influence proceedings sheds a little light on the folly of that “secondary distribution” metric in a vacuum. Note: For a good tuneup on why secondary passes are a better metric than completion percentage– although we contend it is still not a completely accurate metric of player effectiveness- read this piece. Thankfully both Holden and Bedoya found their game in the second half. But be assured, if there’s one thing that El Salvador will do at least as well as Costa Rica, it’s cut down time and space when the US has the ball. I expect some of Jurgen’s newer charges to have taken the Costa Rica lesson well and be ready to play both loose and precise, but for those that take longer to adjust, I can’t see the manager having too much patience in a quarterfinal match.
Look for an experienced US group- one that has dealt with the type of negative tactics El Salvador will employ– in the quarterfinal starting 11. Nick Rimando should return to man the net– and again, he needs to be sharper– especially after Sean Johnson made what is quite simply a save Nick Rimando can’t make to preserve the Costa Rica match and set up the Donovan/Shea heroism. In front of him, we expect a Goodson-Besler pairing, with Beasley and Parkhurst again manning the flanks. Most of what El Salvador wants to do offensively centers around 25 year old Rodolfo Zelaya, who prefers to move toward the center off the field off-the-ball and likes to receive the ball with space somewhere between where a deep-lying “6” and a “CB” playing narrowly would be. That’s a good sign for Parkhurst, who is limited as to how far forward he can go without risking disaster on the counter from positions of width. Parkhurst may even be able to cheat centrally a bit when El Salvador attack through possession, rather than counterattack. A review of the Honduras-El Salvador tape revealed a La Selecta that tried to gut the Honduran center, very rarely delivering crosses from areas near the sideline. There’s no reason to believe they’ll change what little attacking tactics they do utilize Sunday.
In the midfield, Kyle Beckerman would get our nod over Mix Diskerud. The latter was not incisive enough nor interested enough in finding the game in the first half against Costa Rica– and while he too improved in the second half, Beckerman seems like the type of no-nonsense, gritty defender who is capable of harassing Zelaya repetitively right around where he wants to receive the ball. Beckerman also has experience shielding new central defense pairings that could be useful if Besler is asked to start Sunday with either Orozco-Fiscal or Goodson. Beckerman certainly offers less in terms of his incisive distributions than Diskerud, and he can’t beat you from distance as frequently as Mix can– but this will be a game largely about clamping down the center of the US defense so as to not get split and fall behind– and that seems like Beckerman 101 to us. Any combination of Joe Corona, Jose Torres or Landon Donovan would do out wide– and given Klinsmann’s propensity thus far to play Donovan in different spots– it is too hard to predict precisely what will occur in that regard. If Diskerud is selected, it is imperative he seize the initiative faster.
Torres was taken off for Brek Shea in the Costa Rica match, and yes, we (and everyone else) at the time questioned the substitution. It was one of Torres’ finer halves in a USMNT shirt in the first half, and while he continues to take the air out of the ball a bit too often (though this comes with his playing style, largely), he was still effective enough in the second half to earn, and then nearly score on, a brilliant free kick that produced a sitter of rebound for Donovan, who promptly choked. His turnover rate was also much lower than Diskerud’s– and given how much El Salvador rely on errant distributions to trigger their break– he seems a capable starter.
Up top, expect some combination of Wondolowski-Donovan to continue, although it seems like less responsibility for Joe Corona to slot that far forward and play behind Wondolowski. The less you give young Joe Corona to do, the better. Either way, the US will have ample possession in the final third, it is just a matter of maintaining focus and composure as La Selecta chop, kick, bite, scratch and foul to prevent open space for opponents to deliver the final, dangerous ball.
And what will we see out of El Salvador?
The art of frustration. Getting ten men behind the ball and daring the better teams in CONCACAF to find a way to score is what El Salvador does. I end up writing a lot about how the crappier teams in our region will have to change their strategy and bunker in defensively if they want to have a shot at beating the US. That’s not the case for El Salvador. A man’s got to know his limitations, and this particular national team has embraced that concept for as long as I can remember. That’s why they’re not one of the crappy teams in CONCACAF. That’s why they’re always right there on the edge of making the final round of World Cup Qualifying.
The Salvadoran strategy isn’t an all-hands-on-deck bunker defense full of fear, it’s a confident and organized defense designed to frustrate while always keeping its shape. That’s why it took a good Honduras team 80 plus minutes and a moment of ball-movement brilliance to get a goal, and that’s why the US won’t stomp El Salvador in Baltimore. And if you don’t think it’s about frustration– ask Mix Diskerud or Terrence Boyd about the Olympic qualifier. La Selecta midfielder Alexander Larín is with the team, and he’s the guy who punched the Boyd during that Olympic qualifying tournament game, and according to the Grant Wahl article linked above, is alleged to have bit Diskerud and Freddy Adu as well. Whatever it takes, quite literally.
And, as noted, don’t discount the geography of this match. There will be a bipartisan crowd at M & T Bank Stadium on Sunday night. Baltimore’s just a quick drive from DC, which is home to about 20,000 Salvadorans, accounting for almost half of the District’s total Hispanic population. And that’s not counting the thousands of their countrymen living in the suburbs. They will show up on Sunday night.
When El Salvador do attack, its usually off errant distributions that trigger quick counters. Against Trinidad and Tobago, the first of El Salvador’s two goals came on a free kick. The free kick was earned after two quick through-the-middle distributions following a lazy midfield pass by the Soca Warriors captain Theobald. The second goal was another lightning strike counter- this time originating out wide after a turnover, where again two quick passes narrowed the field and fed Zelaya just outside the six. The point is– El Salvador prefers to work their counterattack more narrowly than most teams, and they do this through incuts and diagonal off-ball runners, of whom, Zelaya is the most dangerous. Which leads us to…
Salvadoran Player to Watch: Rodolfo Zelaya
This guy’s got a thankless job. Think Carlos Ruiz on Guatemala. Zelaya is constantly charged with generating the attack on a team that’s coached to not have much interest in attacking en masse. Can’t leave too many holes on the other end right? But Zelaya is a much different player than Carlos Ruiz. Zelaya brings the skill and movement to open up a defense; not so luckily for him, he’s often also charged with finishing the attack himself after creating those openings. For NFL fans, Zelaya is the Barry Sanders of El Salvador, running to one side of the field, drawing the defense, then having to make twelve moves to get himself to the other side where he’s made the space. Okay, so it’s not quite as dramatic as Barry’s old highlight reel runs, but Zelaya’s job is certainly tougher than the basketball adage of “creates his own shot.” No matter how you phrase it, El Salvador’s lucky that Zelaya can actually do the job. Jurgen will have taken note. And so should MLS sides. Zelaya is pacy, strong and skilled on the ball and off of it. He’d be a tremendous (and relatively inexpensive) get for any of the MLS sides in heavily latino markets– DC United?? Bueller??– and it is high time we got to see him play more often.
US Player to Watch: Joe Corona
The US has played better with Joe on the field in this tournament, and that’s not just down to the facts that he started the Belize match and scored a golazo against Cuba. Joe’s shown the ability to link up really well with Landon Donovan. And the best Donovan has looked has been with Joe playing behind the striker with Landon pushed out wide right. Granted, that’s partly because Joe’s comfortable going out to that wing when Lando drifts to the middle, which is a good thing. When Donovan started the Costa Rica match right behind Wondo, without Corona on the field, we pretty much didn’t see Landon for 45 minutes. I don’t think Donovan’s up for the continual fight that comes with that position in the same way that Clint Dempsey is, and that’s okay. Corona’s shown the willingness to battle away in the center of the attack, and in doing so he’s made the teammates around him better; what more can we ask for? And despite the fact that he was brought into the Costa Rica match at his more natural right wing position, Corona still found a way to link up with Landon and influence the match from a central location. Let’s go to the video tape! Watch the highlighter yellow cleats from the very beginning.
Prediction: USA 2 – 1 El Salvador
The Yanks find the match winning goal in the first period of extra time. One hundred and twenty minutes of tooth-and-nail fighting is just what El Salvador wants, but it doesn’t mean they’ll get the win on Sunday night.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!