Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team fought off a sluggish start to defeat El Salvador 2-0 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Wednesday night in a Gold Cup quarterfinal. Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj scored for the United States. The victory sends the Yanks through to a semifinal in Dallas, where they’ll meet Costa Rica. The Ticos bested Panama 1-0 in the evening’s first quarterfinal to advance.
Early on, it was Los Cuscatlecos that looked more likely to take the early lead, beginning in minute four, when a floated ball from deep in El Salvador’s half appeared to find only Eric Lichaj, only to see the Nottingham Forest defender flub the backpass to keeper Tim Howard. El Salvador forward Rodolofo Zelaya raced past Lichaj and was through on goal, only to have his goal-scoring chance rescued at the last moment by Tim Howard.
It was an important moment, both in the match and for lingering questions about the vitality of utilizing Howard as the first-choice keeper next summer. Beating a speedy forward like Zelaya to that type of ball was sound evidence that the US veteran still has the athletic capability to make the types of game-changing plays a World Cup often demands.
The US rallied with two chances of their own, knocking on the door in the 7th minute when Matt Hedges knocked down a solid corner from Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey’s boot found the ball in the ensuing scrum, only to see El Salvador’s Debry Carillo save bravely. Then, in the sixteenth minute, the US earned a pair of chances through the sterling play of Darlington Nagbe, who found Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes on consecutive possessions, only to see Dempsey’s shot saved and Zardes’s opening goal called offside.
But despite these chances, the early going was a struggle for the Yanks, who were disjointed in the midfield and for the fourth consecutive game, struggled to maintain good spacing and organization along the back line. There were multiple instances in the opening half when Michael Bradley had to turn around and point at space for the backline to cover, or point at who should be receiving a simple ball. It was the kind of organizational difficulty you’d expect in a pop-up friendly with an experimental roster, not four games into a tournament. And it raises difficult questions about whether the US defense has the chops to win this tournament.
But for all the problems early, the US came into the game for the final fifteen minutes of the opening half, and finally broke through when Michael Bradley delivered a brilliant set piece that found Omar Gonzalez for a much-needed American goal.
The US struck again minutes later, when Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey and Eric Lichaj exploited an overload down the left side to punish El Salvador and give the Americans a 2-0 lead before the half on Lichaj’s first international goal. It was a lovely piece of aggressive soccer from a US side that began the match far too tentative and unsure.
Three more thoughts on the US victory.
First, the US defense struggled with simple positional defense and organization again. As we look towards next summer, this is a significant concern.
The first team US back four is in Europe for preseason training, of course, if you believe the inside sources telling TYAC that Timothy Chandler is “very much still” in the fullback picture after a monster season at Eintracht Frankfurt. And there’s little reason to doubt this, given he was in Bruce Arena’s plans for the June qualifiers before withdrawing with a muscle injury.
Even if Chandler isn’t in Arena’s future plans, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin are, and all three are absent from this Gold Cup side. Their absences are being felt dramatically, as the US continue to suffer from a positional, organizational and communication standpoint in the Gold Cup.
This is a genuine concern moving forward, not simply in this tournament, where the Americans look exceedingly vulnerable, particularly on simple plays like this one in the second half Wednesday night, where Justin Morrow simply got lost on a floated pass and put Eric Lichaj in full emergency defense mode:
— Jason Foster (@JogaBonitoUSA) July 20, 2017
Fortunately, Lichaj was up for it – but these types of breakdowns happened fairly consistently, whether it was Lichaj’s absent-minded backpass or Omar Gonzalez letting a cross hit the ground in front of him in the six or Matt Hedges continuously allowing forwards to turn and get goalside.
These are problems that could cost the US a Gold Cup. Time and time again Wednesday night, they allowed El Salvador a host of chances to get back in the match.
What they are more critically is a sign that for all the progress the US has made in terms of sheer numbers in the player pool, they have genuine quality issues with the second string defense.
And with John Brooks’s history of recurring minor injuries and the fact he’s at a new club, fighting for a starting gig, there’s even more reason to be wary.
There are players in waiting in the wings – at least at CB – where Matt Miazga has shown well in his lone appearance at the Gold Cup and Cameron Carter-Vickers still in the mix to earn significant playing time at Spurs, where manager Mauricio Pochettino, once a CB himself, is an enormous fan of his talents.
But the US right now are heavily reliant on 32 year old Geoff Cameron, the injury-prone John Brooks, a still green DeAndre Yedlin in defense, while they hope a left back appears from heaven – or Frankfurt, Germany – to solve the longstanding problems at a position Jurgen Klinsmann once said anyone can play.
That’s heady stuff – and something Bruce Arena only has ten months to figure out.
Michael Bradley’s return to the fold was fundamentally the difference in the result.
The numbers weren’t staggering, but they rarely are. Bradley connected on 85 percent of his passes, but it was his willingness to make himself available in a chippy game that lacked space, his set piece deliveries and yes, his efforts to keep a struggling back line together, that made the difference. Not that the usual critics noticed:
— pHILLIp Spanne (@The_Real_DrPhil) July 20, 2017
What the critics miss, of course, isn’t just divine set pieces like on the opening goal below- something the US missed desperately in the group stages, where Kellyn Acosta’s deliveries where subpar:
Perfect pass by Michael Bradley and a great goal by Omar Gonzlez. USA ?? leads El Salvador ?? 2-0 pic.twitter.com/boHffK1Uxm
— SportsNotes (@SportsNotes23) July 20, 2017
They also miss Bradley’s calm and his mentality, the desire to receive the ball and the ability to play the simple pass, the one that settles the midfield and helps the US build rhythm. It was his simple passing to Darlington Nagbe that helped the US begin to change the game around the half-hour mark, and it was ultimately his set piece work that gave the Americans the lead.
On a night where the US struggled to move the ball well with any consistency, set pieces were essential. Couple Bradley’s excellence in that area with his consistent presence in the various flashpoint conflicts and altercations that became a significant part of this game late, criticizing the referee while keeping his teammates under control, and you see why he’s the US captain. After 134 caps and countless “Peak CONCACAF” encounters, there’s just not much that will rattle him. That’s useful, especially in a side that is blending new faces with five of the US’s nine to ten player core.
Finally, referee Drew Fischer and his assistants did a poor job Wednesday night, and CONCACAF must do better.
Let’s call it like it is, y’all. This hasn’t been a fun or well-played soccer tournament. The quarterfinals did little to alter that, with Costa Rica vs. Panama a tedious 1-0 slog and the USA’s battle with El Salvador, for all the American defensive breakdowns, largely degenerating to a technical race to the bottom highlighted by El Salvador cheap shot after El Salvador cheap shot.
Fischer, a Canadian referee who is well-regarded in MLS, simply missed too many obvious calls, the worst of which was a clear bite to Jozy Altidore and a brutal punch to the gut by Alexander Larin. American fans should be familiar with Larin, who clubbed Terrence Boyd in the face in a vital Olympic qualifier in 2013, and should have seen a red card. Instead, the US didn’t see Rio.
He was also highly uneven, issuing a yellow to Darlington Nagbe early in the game for a tackle where the Timbers man got only the ball and grass, but being late to even call a foul on an early second half rash challenge to Eric Lichaj that was a by the book red.
In the end, it was a shameful display from El Salvador, especially given their willingness to come out of the typical CONCACAF shell and attack opponents at this Gold Cup. They had the soccer to go out of this tournament heads high, on their own terms. Instead they put in rash tackles, bit players, twisted nipples and opted to play the role of brute and bully. That’s too bad, but it’s something Fischer and his crew should have handled better and more proactively.
Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.