2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, July 2017, USMNT

USA Hope Roster Changes Are Well-Struck in Gold Cup Quarterfinals vs. El Salvador: TYAC Preview

Landon Donovan’s brilliant game made the most recent USA-El Salvador Gold Cup quarterfinal memorable. The US face El Salvador again, without Donovan, Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy

It wasn’t a Picasso or a feel good Norman Rockwell– heck- it wasn’t even one of those pinot noir infused date night paint by number Monet deals-but in scoring three goals Saturday against Nicaragua, the US brought a modicum of joy to Cleveland’s Factory of Sadness and more importantly, found a way to win Group B in the Gold Cup. The win helped the Americans avoid a terribly tricky quarterfinal tilt with a nearly complete Costa Rica side and sets up a manageable path to the Gold Cup final. There was very little pretty about anything the Americans did over the first three games of the tournament, but the reward for grinding and grit remains a bit higher in CONCACAF than in most places in the world, and here, the US earned a group win out of the deal.

The US will now look to cash in on the spoils of that hard-nosed effort with a complete performance in the quarterfinals Wednesday night in Philadelphia, a city that knows a thing or two about being blue collar. The US opponent Wednesday  night?  A plucky El Salvador team that traded punches with Mexico for ninety and was, in the main, better over ninety minutes than the Jamaica side they drew to reach this stage. Los Cuscatlecos are better than the two sides the US have felled already at this tournament, but they are still a country the US should handle, especially at home.

Tim Howard is among a host of US changes heading into the Gold Cup knock out rounds.

What’s more, the Yanks will face El Salvador bolstered by a host of roster reinforcements, thanks to another odd quirk in the Gold Cup format that allows a manager to make up to six non-injury related personnel changes following conclusion of the group stage. Bruce Arena  opted to make all six allotted changes, making him the only manager to do so, and while one change (Jesse Gonzalez) is largely ceremonial, the other five roster changes are significant, both in how much experience they add to a young US roster and how they help settle what was at best an inefficient attack in the group stage. By now, you all probably know who the changes are, but in case you missed it:

IN: Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore

OUT: Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Guzan, Kelyn Rowe, Dom Dwyer, Sean Johnson, Cristian Roldan

These aren’t changes that solve all the issues that presented themselves in the group stages. But it is the addition of five World Cup quality starters, and while some (myself included) found the decision to send Rowe home surprising after the Revolution youngster’s terrific group stage performances, the Americans certainly added an even more creative player capable of creating and finding pockets in between the lines in Darlington Nagbe. Further, anytime you add your national team’s resident A-Team captain to the mix, you’re bettering the situation on the pitch and in the dressing room. In a tournament where the best contenders have either full-fledged B teams or sent A team talent back to European preseasons (Costa Rica’s changes, which included sending Bryan Oviedo, Joel Campbell and Christian Gamboa back to Europe, were particularly puzzling), the US may have gone from unpredictable side that could win but could easily finish fourth to favorites in an eyelash. 

As odd as it is to say, the quirky and kind of dumb Gold Cup roster rules initially usher in an entirely new Gold Cup come the quarterfinal. Which means we just agreed with this guy, which doesn’t bother us one bit.

A new tournament indeed, Alexi. 

The TYAC Preview then. Usuals then the Pulisic forever particulars.

Series: 23rd Meeting. United States Lead, 16-1-5. This will mark the 6th meeting between the two nations at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the third between the two countries in Gold Cup quarterfinals. The US won the prior two quarterfinal meetings in routs- 4-0 in 2002 and a resounding 5-1 in 2013.  In the 2013 affair, Landon Donovan, playing his only US tournament under Jurgen Klinsmann, scored and added three assists, running and dribbling and passing circles around Los Cuscatlecos all evening. One of the more famous meetings between the two nations occurred in 2009, when Frankie Hejduk scored this goal late to give the US a draw in El Salvador. Come to the below video for a Frankie Hejduk goal, which is truly wonderful. Stay for the absolute travishammockery of an off-ball-run by Danny Califf, who basically just stops mid-television screen just before the US find the net. 

Weather: Hot. Humid. 90 all day and into the 80s as night falls. It should dip down into the upper seventies by the US kick (9 PM, FS1), but this is Philadelphia in the middle of summer. Even the Continental Congress was miserable, and they were founding ‘Merica. Okay- they didn’t have air conditioning and wore layers of clothes and wigs. But still, this game will be fairly uncomfortable, like the back of a Volkswagen. 

Players like San Jose’s Darwin Ceren (right) give El Salvador just enough quality to trouble the CONCACAF giants.

What to Watch for From El Salvador: A gritty team that’s quick on the break, physical defensively and has reasonably good fan support, given that the second and third largest populations of El Salvadoreans in the country (DC and New York City) live within driving distance of Lincoln Financial Field. 

When I was preparing for this preview, I watched some El Salvador clips and a good hour of the Mexico and Jamaica games, but the main thing that stood out for me is something Michael Bradley said to media in Trinidad near the beginning of this tedious slog and grind of a World Cup cycle.

“These games are always the same,” said the US captain “What makes them different is if you can take your chance. You know they’re going to be hard games. You know they aren’t always going to be pretty with the conditions or the weather or the physicality or the late challenges or the condition of the field. We’ve been through it before. We know what it’s like.”

Bradley went on to say a few things that are more “CONCACAF road-game specific”, but the general point is spot-on and comes from a guy with 133 caps of experience: the hardest games in this region are generally races to the footballing bottom colored by late tackles, physicality, compact defense and above all, frustration.

El Salvador will frustrate you. We saw with Mexico, who struggled for a while to play the final pass, despite an early goal. El Salvador get nine or ten behind the ball and dare their technically superior opponent to unlock them. And though they give up plenty of height, they defend set pieces well (only two conceded in twenty games). What separates them, I think, from a run of the mill CONCACAF side is that they have just enough finishing quality to put a scare in a back four, especially one like the Yanks that hasn’t exactly bathed in glory this tournament. Bruce Arena noted the extra bit of attacking quality too, when he addressed the media Monday.

“They keep the ball on the ground, they move it, they’ve got a good quickness in the attack, their strikers are quality, their wide players have been very good,” he said. “They’re going to be a difficult team to play against.”

Here at TYAC, we often write about how inferior sides in CONCACAF have to sit deep and wait for a chance to claw out a goal on the break or on a set piece against the US. And that’s fine. One wonders if Panama had done that with the back four they had last World Cup cycle, perhaps they would have gone to the World Cup. Instead they opened things up just a bit too much, and were snakebit in the end of qualifying. A man’s got to know his limitations, and El Salvador’s bunch 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. And that’s why they’ve plucked points away from good US sides before, like they did in 2009, when they pushed the US in the States and probably deserved more than a draw at home in El Salvador.

Eduardo Lara’s side play a 4-4-2, but it’s basically a dual-destroyer central midfield pairing set up in front of a four man back wall. The team’s captain, Darwin  Cerén, was popular in Orlando for his crunching tackles and relentless work rate, even if he’s not exactly the tidiest distributor of the ball. He’s a leader’s leader, though his midfield partner, Narcisco Orellana, is a talented young midfielder in his own right, and a player who has seen success against the United States at the youth levels. They use two natural wings for width, which allows the fullbacks to stay narrow and help close out in the channels. One of those wings is Andres Flores, who plays in the NASL with the New York Cosmos. Flores can whip in a cross and is fast enough to blow by a flat-footed fullback. The US will want to cheat help to his side. If El Salvador fall behind, he’ll traditionally tuck in behind the two forwards and play more like a true number ten- think a bit of the Fabian role for Mexico. He is a confident footballer, though not really a threat to score from distance. He’s more a creative conduit than the guy who will find the back of the net.

Meanwhile, the back four is a steady group. Three of the four projected starters play together at El Salvadorean club Allianza, which isn’t a good level but does afford them the familiarity of understanding each other’s movements and trust. Alexander Larín, who should start on the left, has tussled with Americans before, clubbing Terrence Boyd once, and he’s a guy with Liga MX credentials even if he’s presently looking for work. His four career goals have all come with his head too, which means he’s a guy the US must seek out on set pieces.

And, as noted, don’t discount the geography of this match. There will be plenty of blue and white at the Linc Wednesday night.  DC has 20,000 Salvadorans, accounting for almost half of the District of Colombia’s total Hispanic population, and there’s another 20K or so in New York City. And that’s not counting the thousands of their countrymen living in the suburbs or on the Jersey side of both areas. They will show up loud and proud. 

Clint Dempsey returns to the fold for Bruce Arena and the US tonight.

What to Watch for From the United States: 

What difference do the changes make? Tim Howard says regardless of the changes, the goal is the same.

“Obviously, we’re in the middle of our season, so there aren’t concerns about form or fitness,” the veteran keeper told reporters Tuesday. “The knockout element changes the the intensity a bit, but like always, it’s an honor to wear the shirt and the goal is to win the tournament.”

Indeed, it is, Tim. And given the fact that of the three primary contenders (Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States), the Americans made the most proactive and helpful changes. The expectation ought to be that they work.

So what is the optimal setup to that end? And what questions remain for fans to focus on Wednesday night?

Let’s start with two obvious realities.

First, Tim Howard is going to start in goal.

Guzan is gone, left to settle in with Atlanta United, who need him with incumbent starter Alec Kann now out for several weeks with an injury. Bill Hamid stays, for what it’s worth, a hint that he is perhaps the leader for the final World Cup goalkeeper roster spot ahead of next summer. Jesse Gonzalez, who has chosen the US over Mexico after a short recruiting battle between the nations, has also been called into the camp. Many will clamor to start him immediately, which both won’t happen and is silly. Having filed a one-time switch, Gonzalez can’t represent anyone but the United States. So there’s not a rush to cap tie him. And even if there was, you don’t call in the vets that Arena has called in and then risk a bad night by a first time cap goalkeeper in a Gold Cup quarterfinal just so you can see the new guy play. That’s absurd and simply won’t happen.

Second, Michael Bradley will start and stabilize the midfield. Who partners with him? And how does that impact the formation?

The captain will be in the eleven Wednesday night for cap number 134, and the US, who struggled at times in the group stage establishing rhythm and adequate spacing in the midfield, will be better for it.

Let’s start with a basic premise.

The US need central midfielders that want the ball and make themselves available for it. This is true in any soccer game, but often especially true in the gritty physical grinding games of CONCACAF, where defenses apply constant pressure and put in brutal tackles consistently, the logic being that winning the physical battle can unnerve the US and force a race to the bottom that springs an upset. Bradley solves part of this problem by having the tenacity to play in traffic and make himself avaiable for teammates.

A potential US deployment, though Bradley here would be deep in more of a 4-1-3-2.

Bradley is certainly more comfortable from deeper positions, but with Kellyn Acosta and Darlington Nagbe in the fold, that’s not a bad thing. He’s also best in the scrum, where he can slice his divine diagonals or play the simple, methodical passes so critical to building lengthy dangerous spells of possession and rhythm. 

The thought here is it will be Kellyn Acosta that pairs with him, a grouping that has worked for Bruce Arena at Estadio Azteca and gives the US a bit more bite moving forward. With Bradley as a security blanket, Acosta’s weaknesses, on full display in the group stages, are limited. His desire to play the killer ball rather than keep possession and take what the defense gives him are less risky. And with Darlington Nagbe, one of the best players in the US pool at not only carrying the ball out of traffic but demanding it in traffic, available on a wing, Acosta should be even stronger, trusting teammates as outlets rather than putting internal pressure on himself to make every big, creative play. This should inure to the US’s benefit.

Any number of Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola or Chris Pontius could start on the other flank. The TYAC money is on Arriola, who will take on defenders 1 v 1 like Zardes but offers more in terms of width and defense than does Pontius. 

Moving backwards…

Bruce Arena trusts Omar Gonzalez. But who does he pair with the Pachuca defender?

What does the US do in defense?

The US made no defensive changes, which would have surprised us if there had been better players available. But with the preferred US CB pairing- and perhaps both preferred US fullbacks- in Europe- the US will have to play with the guys they have. That’s not all bad, but they’ll need to decide what the optimal CB starting pairing is.

Here, we find maybe the most interesting question for Bruce Arena moving forward in the competition. Does he rely on the players he knows- Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler- who struggled at times in the group stage? Or does he take a risk, and get a good look at a young defender playing in the fire of a knockout competition instead?

The argument for the latter is stronger, especially given the fact that Matt Miazga looked so comfortable Saturday in Cleveland doing precisely what Omar Gonzalez often fails to do: calling the lines, playing the simple and decisive pass to the available man, staying goal side and sound from a positional standpoint. Gonzalez is brilliant aerially and a marvelous emergency defender, and Arena trusts him so much he made him a rich man in Los Angeles. And Omar has been excellent in Mexico too. He’s a winner and he’ll start. I just think at this point internationally Miazga makes him better than Hedges or Besler.

At fullback, the US will have to decide between Lichaj and Zusi. Logic- and TYAC sources- indicate it will be Lichaj- who is still in preseason form fitness wise and was asked to play only once in the group stage as a result. The idea was to save his legs, and utilize his tactical and defensive nous once the elimination rounds started. Zusi continues to offer what he’s always offered- a great free kick and a penchant to make one or two marvelous plays a game. He will contend for a roster spot until the end next summer. But the US will be better starting Eric Lichaj.

Jorge Villafana will start at the other fullback spot. That he remains a 1 v 1 liability defensively isn’t lost on Bruce Arena, and it is why Timothy Chandler, for all the questions that swirl about his commitment level, remains firmly in the national team picture.

And up top?

The inset lineup gives it away, but for the 67th time, it will be Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Read the tea leaves before you complain.

Here’s what the US manager said about the duo Tuesday.

“They understand each other,” Arena said of Altidore and Dempsey. “I think their skills complement each other. Their mentality complements each other. They’re two very accomplished players and the numbers show that at both the club and international level.”

Gripe about the pairing all you want, but with Bobby Wood in Europe beginning his preseason, these are the top two forwards in the pool, and if the US play two up top, they won’t reinvent the wheel in the quarters.

This pairing also makes sense from a fitness and legs standpoint, as it will afford Arena the chance to play Dempsey sparingly in the semifinal to rest the veteran for the final. At this stage in Dempsey’s international career, managing his minutes is vital. Arena understands that, and hinted he’ll use Wednesday to evaluate what the longtime US star has in the tank.

“(Dempsey) will demonstrate that when he has his opportunities and plays,” Arena said Tuesday night. “If he’s a 90-minute player on a full-time basis or plays a different role, we’ll see that clearly over 2017 and he will give us some indications as we move into 2018.”

The Gold Cup was supposed to be Kellyn Acosta’s coming out party internationally. It hasn’t been, but still can be.

American Player To Watch: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)

This was supposed to be Kellyn Acosta’s tournament, and it still can be, but things haven’t exactly gone according to plan thus far.

Most our readers probably know the back-of-the-baseball-card version of Acosta’s story.

He’s the FC Dallas defensive prospect who was good enough to start at fullback for a good US Under-20 World Cup team that lost to the eventual champ in the quarters a couple years ago. But Óscar Pareja told the world, “this kid’s a midfielder,” and everyone outside the Dallas metro said, “we’ll see.” So he was a defensive midfielder for a minute before showing he belonged in the dead-center of the park. Now he’s the true number eight (who can also play the six) many are calling for to supplant MB90 in the national team. Granted, said “many” consists of mostly Michael Bradley haters, but that doesn’t take away from the myriad positive points to be made about Kellyn Acosta’s play. The kid’s excelled in MLS and against stiff Mexican competition in the CONCACAF Champions League where so many of our heroes have failed miserably. And if Paul Tenorio’s latest article is to be believed (and Paul’s great, so, y’know, believe it), FC Dallas management expects the wunderkind to jump to Europe within the next year.

So you’re starting to see the setup for this Gold Cup, right?

“With the USMNT’s established stars left at home, young Kellyn Acosta gets his shot to run the team. He scored a free kick goal against Ghana in the tune-up match for this tournament, and now he’ll get his chance to truly put his stamp on this Gold Cup.”

Read it again in movie preview guy big voice if you didn’t do that the first time.

Anyway, all that didn’t happen.

Kellyn hasn’t been terrible in his two matches thus far, but he’s certainly been pedestrian. And you don’t walk into the A team’s starting lineup with pedestrian performances (see what I did there?).

Even worse?

Now the big guns are joining this squad, and Kellyn’s left trying to throw the dopest party this high school’s ever seen because his buddies that already graduated are coming and he can’t look lame in front of them! Wait, hold on, I’m getting a note that all metaphors/anecdotes this week are supposed to be Game of Thrones themed for clicks and stuff. Let me force this one right quick (spoiler alert, duh). Acosta sailed off from the Iron Islands looking to prove himself to his family, had some success, but got in over his head, and by the time the cavalry arrived he was down to about six men, and about to lose Winterfell. Thankfully for Kellyn Acosta, he’s in a better position than that, and will almost certainly respond to this adversity with hard work, not hubris. We’d hate to see him follow Theon’s path any further.

So what does that mean we’re in store for in this quarterfinal?

I think we see Acosta back in the starting lineup, alongside his midfield partner from the latest trip to the Azteca, Captain Michael Bradley. And I’m not going down a tactical path here. Sure, playing alongside MB90 in a double pivot might be a good thing for Acosta’s game, but that’s not the argument I’m making. Kelly Acosta has earned every little bit of hype he’s ever had thrown his way (even by the too-hyped Bradley haters), and it’s my strong belief that he’s going to turn in a good performance in this match no matter the circumstances. Arena could go retro and start Acosta in defense (he won’t), and you’d see a good game out of him. If Kellyn Acosta really is the sum of everything he’s put on tape in his career, he’ll make an impact in an American win on Wednesday.

El Salvador Player To Watch: Rodolfo Zelaya (Alianza and  also, after another strong Gold Cup, every MLS rumor ever)

Rodolfo Zelaya is by far my favorite Salvadoran player to write about. Didn’t know I had one of those did ya? He’s also one of the few guys that makes El Salvador watchable. And thankfully for Gold Cup viewers (but not American defenders), he’s no longer suspended for his part in Salvadoran soccer’s giant match fixing scandal! Hooray!

Zelaya is a 29 year old forward/attacking midfielder that can dribble through almost any CONCACAF defense (or, for instance, defenses of any team DC United might be playing). He currently plays for Alianza in San Salvador, and has not yet played for the MLS team with the largest and most passionate Salvadorean fan-base. Transfermarkt.com estimates his market value at €150,000, and we have no reason to care about that (somebody get this blog to Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen).

I was in attendance the last time the Yanks played El Salvador in a Gold Cup Quarterfinal, and while I was treated to a big American win, I also got to see Zelaya make a mockery of the whole American backline in one fell swoop.

He quite literally dribbled right past three American defenders in the box, making each of them look stupid in their own unique way in the process. Then he did the same to DaMarcus Beasley, who declined to follow his teammates’ lead, and threw a body check into Rodolfo that’d make Dustin Byfuglien proud. Then Zelaya stepped up to the penalty spot and chipped Nick Rimando something nasty right in front of me.

You can watch the whole terrifying sequence here:

With all respect to Darwin Ceren and Nelson Bonilla, restricting Rodolfo Zelaya should be the number one concern for the Americans whenever they surrender the ball in this match (which hopefully won’t be often, but Mr. Ceren might have something to say about that).

Part of me wants to see Matt Miazga rewarded for a clean sheet and his heroics versus Nicaragua, but the rest of my being is telling me he’s just the type of player Zelaya will bait into the next spot-kick gifting shoulder tackle. Hopefully the boys in red and navy can score enough goals to overcome a brilliant moment or two.

Prediction: USA 3, El Salvador 1. Backline will leak another goal, probably on a piece of Zelaya brilliance. But the US will start fast and establish a midfield rhythm, and Clint Dempsey will score a goal. Maybe he’ll even break the record?

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • reanalyst

    @nwblackmon – Thanks for this witty and informative preview. I hope you’re right about the lineup. I fear some Zardes, and based on this tournament’s performances, I’d prefer Besler to Gonzales, but Gonzo should be fine.
    Does Fabian Johnson need to be present for us to have a Fabian Johnson misery index?

    • He does, in fact, need to be present for a Misery Index.

      Your Zardes fears were correct- though I’d note that he played well, especially in the second half!

      Thanks for reading!

      • reanalyst

        I was pleasantly surprised with Zardes. He was fine, and I thought Gonzo was outstanding!