USA-El Salvador: Three takeaways from a labored 2-0 win

Two goals late in the first half eased the mounting tension of a lackluster first half and though the second half wasn’t all that much better the U.S. held the advantage built on goals by defenders Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj to beat El Salvador, 2-0, in the Gold Cup quarterfinals Wednesday in Philadelphia.

After 40 minutes of errant passes and clumsy touches, the Americans broke through. Gonzalez headed home a Michael Bradley free kick in the 41st minute and Lichaj ran onto a nice ball from Clint Dempsey  to slot home his first international goal. The rough, sometimes vicious play continued as the teams racked up 43 fouls and five cautions, four issued to El Salvador.

The victory set up a semifinal against Costa Rica, which beat Panama, 1-0, with an own goal scored by midfielder Anibal Godoy. The semifinal is Saturday in Arlington, Texas.

Three takeaways of a game that didn't address issues that cropped up in the first round:

1. A misleading halftime lead.

During the first half most of the U.S. players seemed infected by the same bug, that of plain old poor play. A limp back pass by Lichaj in the third minute set up a great chance for Rodolfo Zelaya, whose dribble to the edge of the penalty area ran aground to a sliding challenge by keeper Tim Howard that cleared the ball to safety.

In the 10 minutes leading up to the goal Jozy Altidore poked the ball right to an opponent, Darlington Nagbe struck a simple pass woefully short, Dempsey played a U.S. throw-in right back over the sideline, and several other bad, unforced errors gave away possession.

Extensive changes to the roster by Coach Bruce Arena might explain some of the disjointed play, but many of the errors were individual breakdowns of sloppy technique or lazy reaction. Excessive fouling by El Salvador hampered U.S. efforts to establish a crisp, confident tempo, even with a 2-0 lead.

A terrible pass by centerback Matt Hedges  provided El Salvador with another chance it failed to put away, and when Howard flailed at a deflected shot he should have collected the danger wasn’t thwarted until Hedges blasted the ball high into the stands. The Americans were extremely fortunate to take a 2-0 lead into halftime, given the overall quality and efficiency of their play.

2. No style points for physical play.

The teams gave away a combined 17 free kicks in the first half as neither could seem to keep the ball or win it cleanly.

Numerous rough fouls that merited cautions were not so punished by referee Drew Fischer, who didn’t get the best of help from his assistant referees. A perfectly legal pass that sent Gyasi Zardes  clear of the Salvadoran back line was incorrectly flagged and whistled for offside, and a similar play by El Salvador in the second half was also wrongly annulled.

Blatantly overzealous play plagues many matches in Concacaf and this game provided a vivid example. Altidore was jabbed in the groin and apparently bitten by Henry Romero, who was cautioned for unsporting behavior rather then sent off for violent conduct in the 82nd minute. By then rough treatment had thoroughly enraged Altidore, who was fortunate not be cautioned by Fischer for his vituperative outbursts.

3. So what does Arena do now?

As has been the case throughout the tournament, performance hasn’t matched the results and the goal of improving as the competition gets tougher has not been attained.

Can the head coach forgive the dangerous gaffes by Hedges and Lichaj and keep them in the lineup to face a much tougher foe in Costa Rica? Gonzalez scored his second goal of his tournament by neatly heading Bradley’s free kick through the arms of keeper Derby Carrillo but he, too, gave away a ball in a bad spot, a mistake that a better team would probably punish more ruthlessly than did El Salvador.

Left back Justin Morrow got forward enough and committed sufficient challenges to draw five fouls but he wasn’t all that clean on the ball and Arena will be especially wary of how dangerous giveaways will be against Costa Rica.  The ball control and poise of Jorge Villafana may return him to the starting lineup.

Arena brought Kellyn Acosta off the bench in the second half to shore things up and though play improved it would present a significant risk to start him on Saturday, so Arena could go with Dax McCarty  alongside Bradley or use both them along with Nagbe, whose ability to slither through challenges and push the ball upfield could be a decisive element in a tight game.

Despite a couple of fluffed touches and his first-half foul, Nagbe played reasonably well alongside Bradley in central midfield and drew the most fouls, six. Right midfielder Paul Arriola drew four fouls but as was the case against Martinique, struggled to put shots on frame. All three of his attempts missed the target.

In his first appearance of the tournament, Dempsey went missing at times yet also landed all three of his shots on target and slit open the Salvadoran back line with his great pass to Lichaj. If he comes out of the game in good order, Arena will have to decide if changes to the front line are necessary or he brings back both Altidore and Dempsey either in the same 4-4-2 formation or uses Dempsey underneath Altidore in a 4-2-3-1.

22 comments about "USA-El Salvador: Three takeaways from a labored 2-0 win".
  1. Charles Stamos, July 20, 2017 at 1:44 a.m.

    This game exposed a glaring US weakness as these eleven (and subs) have never played together, and we do not have a system that allows players to drop in and out of the l/u with little or no strategic consequence. The first 30 minutes looked like a pick up game with half of the team being strangers. The good news is they now have 90 minutes of playing time under their belt. A stronger Costa Rica team awaits, and we will likely fail that test unless a remarkable team effort materializes. If finding players 12-18 is Arena's goal in this tournament, and then he can forge a winning team out of that 18, he will be a magician of a coach. Good luck USA...

  2. Nick Daverese, July 20, 2017 at 6:57 a.m.

    They are doing the same crap they did in previous games. When players check back they don't do it at angles. So the check back player is blocking the dribblers view of the up top space. Instead of the dribbler doing a pull back and taking the ball some where else. He passes the ball 3 yards to that check back player who can't Turn its crap football. You know what makes me laugh that bull speech that both teams captains made before the game starts. They say because kids are watching a joke. El Salvador played a dirty game and were diving all over the place I hope the kids were not watching :) a lot of intercepted passes by El Salvatore. We played to long in congested space before we decided to reverse our field to the less congested side. Well good news is at least we won at least this game.

  3. Nick Daverese, July 20, 2017 at 8:22 a.m.

    One thing I can not understand Bruce has to make close to a million a year. Why can't he buy a custom tailored suit? Instead of looking like 10 lbs of hamburger meat stuffed into a 5 lb bag.

  4. Al Gebra replied, July 20, 2017 at 11:07 a.m.

    He looked sloppy. So did his team

  5. Gary Levitt, July 20, 2017 at 9:35 a.m.

    Hey Nick: your first comment is worthy. Your second comment: do you really care what our manager looks like on the sideline? Seriously? No one gives a damn what Arena looks like...what we do care about is the lack of technical abilities and poor tactical awareness of some of our player pool.
    www.justmytake.net

  6. Nick Daverese, July 20, 2017 at 10:10 a.m.

    Why do we care about the pre game warm up? Let the players do whatever they want to get ready to play. You look good in the warm up spectators at least know you try to look like a team before you start the game.

    It is not to much to ask for a manager to look good when he comes out on the field. He represents the team and they represent his work. He looked very sloppy out there it was not necessary. I take my Grand Children to the movies in a suit. I like to look good when I go out or when I am on the touch line. The side line is another sport not ours.

  7. Kevin Leahy, July 20, 2017 at 11:21 a.m.

    No matter how many caps Jozy has, he still can't seem to control himself.

  8. Joe Linzner replied, July 21, 2017 at 2:12 a.m.

    He also cannot play isolate on him and count the touches. How many he controlled and lost, passed away, mishit and compare to productive touches. Man has lead feet and got manhandled by 5'4 Salvadoreans! Cannot understand what he is doing on the team!!!!

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, July 21, 2017 at 9:34 a.m.

    Who should be playing instead Joe?

  10. Nick Daverese, July 20, 2017 at 11:30 a.m.

    Keven I the opponent did a number on him in the game. I thought he took it pretty well considering.

  11. Ben Myers replied, July 20, 2017 at 12:51 p.m.

    When will Arena conclude that Jozy Altidore on the USMNT is a failed experiment? Altidore is simply not technical enough for international play. His speed is questionable, and speed kills in international play. The fact that he stands 3rd on the USMNT list of goal scorers is because coaches have stuck with him for so long. Work ethic? Questionable. Constant harassment by El Salvador players took him out of the game. Arena should have pulled him after maybe 60 minutes of continually diminishing performance.

  12. Kent James replied, July 20, 2017 at 3:42 p.m.

    Yeah, I agree; when you're bitten and someone pinches your nipple, you're doing pretty well not to go after him physically (especially when you're bigger and stronger than he is...).

  13. beautiful game, July 20, 2017 at 11:42 a.m.

    It's plain and simple; mediocre soccer IQ. This Gold Cup is perfect for experimentation.

  14. John Soares, July 20, 2017 at 11:58 a.m.

    It was a lousy game with a terrible ref.
    Only good news... the win allows for a second chance. It will be different.

  15. Peter Jurew, July 20, 2017 at 2:08 p.m.

    Frustrated by last night's "UGLY" (NY Times) debacle, came to SA for insight and found it. In sum: A lousy game, a terrible ref, USA players have low soccer IQ and glaring weaknesses, having never played together USA meshed like total strangers, Altidore is a failed experiment, sloppy coach = sloppy team doing the same crap the did in previous games. Hopeless? Methinks so.

  16. Ric Fonseca replied, July 20, 2017 at 4:36 p.m.

    Peter: For some now not-so-strange reason, the US MNT doesn't seem to understand that most, if not ALL, Western Hemisphere national teams (with a couple exceptions) will ALWAYS do all and everything they can to get the US off their rhythm, and I'll be so bold as to say that it is in their soccer-dna to really take it and dish it out to the teams north of the border, los gigantes del norte, los yankis. So if you can't really beat them to the ball, just beat them up, pure and simple! As for coach Brewce Arena, maybe if he just wore USNT Warm ups with a neat polo shirt....

  17. Kent James, July 20, 2017 at 4:08 p.m.

    Good teams win even when they don't play well. The next match will give us some indication as to whether our less than stellar play is an aberration or a trend...

  18. Bob Ashpole, July 20, 2017 at 4:40 p.m.

    Smart players play well together even if they haven't seen each other before and don't speak the same language. On the other hand even smart players make mistakes. I remember when conventional wisdom was that the best players do something effective with the ball only 50 or 60% of the time. If everyone played perfectly on every touch then soccer matches would be high scoring. The coach, team, and fans should put this match behind them and look forward to the semi-finals.

  19. Kevin Leahy, July 20, 2017 at 4:57 p.m.

    Nick, you are correct. The opponent did a number on Jozy. The opponents & referees continue to do that to him. He has not learned how to handle bad calls & bad boys. Professionals learn to deal with these things. He is not the only player that gets fouled & doesn't get calls. It might be different if it were occasional but, he is always getting dragged down the rabbit hole.

  20. Nalin Carney, July 20, 2017 at 5:29 p.m.

    I really get tired of you whining about the "win". Apparently the opposition spent most of their time fouling our players and that certainly encourages a ragged game instead of the beautiful game. Give it a break !

  21. beautiful game, July 20, 2017 at 6:14 p.m.

    Players not familiar with each other is a lame excuse for their lack of execution.

  22. Nick Daverese, July 22, 2017 at 8:27 p.m.

    I think El Salvador tried to stop our wing play from the right side. That is one of the reasons why we looked so bad on that side. You can do that using three players. It was a favorite think to do on defense by Alfonse Mondelo he did it when he coached the Metrostars and when he coached Hota Bavaria when he played us. One guy tries to take way the back pass on the flank remember the intercept back pass attempts from us on the right flank. Then you had a guy taking away the forward pass by the flank mid. Then you had a third defended 5 yards inside the field to take away that pass inside the field also to keep the flank mid from dribbling inside the field. El Salvatore did not do the last part well the defender was too far inside the field.

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