A five minute flurry in the waning moments of the first half was enough to guide the United States past El Salvador and into the semi-finals of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Goals from two U.S. defenders, Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj, helped see the Americans past a determined and quite ferocious La Selecta, a 2-0 victory in front of an official crowd of 31,615 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
While the support was quite mixed in terms of partisanship (a strong Salvadorian contingent possibly exceeding the number of U.S. fans inside the stadium), the quality soccer was played mostly by La Selecta, El Salvador looking the more fluid side in the run of play.
The Yanks were fortunate, at times lucky, on a night when five first-team regulars returned to the starting lineup, only to yield an overall performance as sloppy and inauspicious as any of the team’s prior three matches.
Set pieces and an individual moment of class got Bruce Arena’s side the 2-0 result against a national team over 100 places below them in the FIFA World Rankings.
The U.S. will face off with a highly touted Costa Rica side on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, with a spot in the Gold Cup Final at stake.
Before the spotlight heads south, here are three pieces of analysis from Wednesday’s weirdness with El Salvador in The City of Brotherly Love.
Shambles at the Back
El Salvador had the United States backline scrambling throughout much of the first half of Wednesday’s game, with some concerning defensive displays coming to light for the Yanks in the second forty-five as well.
Matt Hedges may have finally played his way out of the starting XI at this tournament. After being infamously torched in the group stage against Martinique, Hedges was taken for a rocky ride, repeatedly getting spun and beaten for pace by Rodolfo Zelaya and Nelson Bonilla, the Salvadorian strike-force that should have put at least one in the back of the net before the night was finished.
Hedges central partner Omar Gonzalez had some shaky moments himself, looking less than confident on numerous crosses whipped in by Denis Pineda and the rest of El Salvador’s wingers and fullbacks.
Justin Morrow was chosen by Arena ahead of Jorge Villafaña at left-back. Villafaña could very well return for the semi-final clash with Costa Rica. Morrow was timid in his challenges and caught flat footed on multiple occasions. Alexander Larín was the far superior player on the night in the same position for La Selecta.
There was perhaps no player with a worse defensive performance than Eric Lichaj, the reigning Nottingham Forrest Player of the Year starting off the match by nearly giving away a goal inside three minutes. Tim Howard, fresh into the Gold Cup squad, came to the American right-back’s rescue after a horrid back pass slowly trickled through the damp grass at Lincoln Financial Field and into the path of a streaking Zelaya, the Salvadorian forward not doing enough to get by the charging Howard at the top of the eighteen.
However, it was Gonzalez and Lichaj who conquered the evening, the two U.S. defenders scoring the goals that carried the U.S. into the last four, Gonzalez with a flicked header from a Michael Bradley free-kick in the 41st minute (his third goal in 42 caps for the U.S. after scoring just one in his first 40 appearances), and Lichaj with a sweet left-footed finish in a one v. one situation with El Salvador goalkeeper Derby Carrillo in the second minute of first-half stoppage time.
The Curious Case of Eric Lichaj
In a post-game interview with FOX’s Jenny Taft, Lichaj called his performance in the first half of Wednesday’s quarterfinal “shocking”.
After thanking his goalkeeper for saving him from embarrassment in the game’s opening minutes, Lichaj went on to express his gratitude for not being punished by El Salvador for his defensive mistakes in the second half.
“I was fortunate to have scored that goal,” Lichaj said. “Without that, it’s not a good night for me.”
Lichaj, who was playing in just his thirteenth international match, scored his first goal for the national team and celebrated with an undeniable joy and palpable sense of relief, his 47th minute first half strike guiding the U.S. back into the dressing room with a commanding 2-0 lead that was far from what the purists would call deserved.
The goal felt like a fine moment of personal redemption for Lichaj who was indeed fortunate to not be the sad clown of the first forty-five.
It was the type of run that only a world-class player or someone with something to prove would make. It’s quite interesting what motivation can do on the pitch, especially when it comes from a desire to rescue one’s pride.
Flying way up from his right-back spot, timing his cross field darting run to perfection, Lichaj got on the end of Clint Dempsey’s delicate through ball after a nifty turn from the Nacogdoches native (Dempsey, scoreless on the night, remains at 56 career goals for the U.S., still one behind Landon Donovan for first all-time).
Lichaj took one touch with his right foot, collecting the pass from Dempsey just inside the eighteen, and proceeded to follow his momentum and nutmeg Carrillo with his left, a clean finish capping off a gorgeous run and a rusty looking half, and possibly keeping Lichaj in the lineup moving forward.
Will Lichaj start against the Ticos on Saturday? If the options are he and the man-bun warrior that is Graham Zusi, the answer could very well be yes.
Here’s another fun one for you to ponder: With his composure in a rapid fire, pressure packed moment in front of goal, where does Eric Lichaj rank on the striker depth chart for this U.S. team?
Bites and Nipple Pinches; Things get freaky in Philly
During a set-piece in the 58th minute of Wednesday’s match, El Salvador center-back Henry Romero appeared to bite U.S. forward Jozy Altidore in the back before twisting Altidore’s left nipple as he fell to the ground screaming toward Canadian referee Drew Fischer.
While retroactive punishment is surely coming his way, Romero received no caution or ejection for the incident which has already been reviewed with ample scrutiny by media and fans alike.
Altidore seemed to take it all with a grain of salt, showing a delightfully raunchy sense of humor with his words to reporters in the post-match mixed zone, complete with shades of Louis Van Gaal’s infamous “sex masochism” comments in the Dutch manager’s final days at Manchester United in 2016.
Altidore: "My girl is mad at me. She’s mad at me, she’s mad at Romero. She’s like ‘Only I can bite u, only I can grab your nipples.’ #usmnt
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) July 20, 2017
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