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.