One more win and the United States will be playing in the Gold Cup Final.
In four tournament matches, Bruce Arena’s side has played far from perfect soccer. Inauspicious performances from a discombobulated squad have induced the dissatisfied groans of fans and pundits alike. That group seeming to lack cohesion happens to be on a three match win streak and has posted back to back clean sheets.
In twelve matches under Arena, the U.S. are unbeaten with 7 wins and 5 draws. The post-Klinsmann era has seen a slight improvement in the overall psychological standing of the team, with results also on an upward trend comparative to the final days of the German’s tenure.
However, in terms of quality displays of total footballing prowess, apart from a spectacular 6-0 win over Honduras in World Cup Qualifying in late March, the U.S. have looked less than convincing since the second coming of Bruce.
Again, this U.S. group (we’ll call it the B+ team at this point in time) that has trudged through this 2017 Gold Cup is one win away from the final, potentially a dream match-up with Mexico in Santa Clara.
Standing in their way in Saturday night’s semi-final in Arlington, Texas is Costa Rica, a side in as good of form and as loaded as any other remaining in the tournament. (Jamaica will square off with Mexico on Sunday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for the right to take on the winner of the Yanks v. Ticos clash in next Wednesday’s final.)
Here are three storylines to keep tabs on come kickoff time at AT&T Stadium on Saturday.
Defending as a unit: U.S. need to tighten the screws
There was perhaps no more worrying aspect of the U.S. performance against El Salvador than that of the American backline. For the second time in the tournament (the first coming in the wild 3-2 victory over Martinique on match-day 2), Matt Hedges looked a complete liability at center-back, being spun repeatedly and beaten for pace by El Salvador forwards Rodolfo Zelaya and Nelson Bonilla.
Justin Morrow was mediocre at left-back, timid in his challenges, scattered with his spacing, and offering little to nothing moving forward, begging the question of whether Jorge Villafaña will return to the lineup after a lackluster showing himself in the final group match against Nicaragua.
Omar Gonzalez looked suspect on crosses from wide players, the Pachuca man fortunate not to have paid a heftier price for his poor marking and indecisive nature inside his own eighteen yard box.
At right-back Eric Lichaj gave a performance he simply called “shocking”. It was of course Lichaj, along with Gonzalez, who rippled the back of the net late in the first half (Gonzalez getting a headed flick onto a Michael Bradley free-kick service and Lichaj scoring exquisitely with his left foot after a lung busting run into the attack to get on the end of a delicate through ball from Clint Dempsey) to guide the U.S. to victory over La Selecta. It was just the third time since 1990 that two U.S. defenders scored in the same match.
What was most troubling about the defensive discombobulation on display against the Salvadorians was a clear lack of comfort and calmness among the members of the U.S. backline. They looked nervous at times, disconnected and unsure of how to help one another in crucial moments.
Whoever Arena trots out to the defensive positions on Saturday, those players must find a way to come together as a unit and fill in the cracks that have been opening far too often. Costa Rica are more potent than any team the U.S. have faced thus far. The Ticos will not waste chances the way El Salvador did in Philadelphia.
Firepower: Will the engines sputter, or will the beautiful game flow?
You know all about the less than convincing fashion in which Bruce Arena’s side has reached the semi-final stage. But what about Óscar Ramírez and his Costa Rica team?
After a group stage that saw them win two and draw one (opening with a hard fought 1-0 win over Honduras and following it up with a 1-1 draw with Canada and a 3-0 drubbing of CONCACAF anti-darlings French Guiana), the Ticos needed a late own goal from Panama’s Anibal Godoy in their most recent contest to sneak into the last four.
(It was the cruelest of fates for the San Jose Earthquakes midfielder who was pivotal in disrupting and frustrating the Costa Rican flow throughout the quarterfinal match before heading one into his own net.)
Iconic attacking-midfielder Bryan Ruiz, the31 year-old from Sporting Lisbon who has made over 70 appearances for the national team, and San Jose Earthquakes forward Marco Ureña are two players to keep tabs on when you’re watching the action unfold on Saturday. For the U.S. team, it will be a good idea to stay relatively tight on Ruiz, a player with phenomenal vision who thrives in pockets of space and always relishes a shot from distance.
Finding the Magic: Who’s gonna be THAT guy in stars and stripes?
There is a good chance that this semi-final showdown between the U.S. and Costa Rica could be your classic knockout round affair, with both teams playing conservatively and refusing to take the kind of risks that could leave them exploited defensively. The game’s outcome could very well come down to one decisive moment, be it something magical from one individual (a single goal akin to any of the three we saw in Jamaica’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over Canada on Thursday) or something highly unfortunate (like Godoy’s own goal that got the Ticos to this stage).
If you were Bruce Arena, which U.S. player would you want that one decisive chance to fall to?
When you review the nine goals scored by the U.S. in four Gold Cup matches, some interesting statistics and subsequent conversations come to light.
Omar Gonzalez is tied for the team lead with 2 goals, level with Jordan Morris who bagged a brace against Martinique. Dom Dwyer, Joe Corona, Kelyn Rowe, Matt Miazga, and Eric Lichaj all have one apiece.
Of the nine goals, four have been scored by defenders.
Two goals have been scored by players who are no longer with the team (Dwyer and Rowe being sent back to their respective MLS sides this past Sunday as the A-Team cavalry arrived).
While there may have been a few cobwebs to shake off for the new outfield arrivals on Wednesday, (Michael Bradley, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey) the U.S. should feel confident in that core of players going into Saturday’s contest. Each of those men is capable of creating that one vital piece of individual magic that could take the Americans into the final.
There is some added motivation for Dempsey, who with his next goal would tie Landon Donovan for first all-time on the U.S. list. Donovan holds the record with 57, Deuce right at the doorstep with 56.
One Last Thing: Remember THAT Preki goal?
It was a Gold Cup quarterfinal in the rainy Oakland, California winter of 1998.
A tight, tense, and emotionally draining affair had reached its boiling point in the 77th minute, the score tied 1-1 at a gloomy and scarcely populated Oakland Coliseum.
That was when Serbian-American sensation Predrag Radosavljević, more commonly known by his affectionate nickname of Preki, popped up with one of the best goals ever scored by a U.S. player in the modern era.
(Preki followed it up with another match-winning missile against Brazil at the Los Angeles Coliseum days later in the semi-final. The U.S. would ultimately lose to Mexico in the final, 1-0 thanks to a dagger of a header from longtime U.S. nemesis and El Tri legend Luis Hernandez.)
Perhaps the Americans can take a bit of inspiration from Preki’s magical moment in ’98 when they battle the Ticos in Arlington on Saturday night.
USA v. Costa Rica
CONCACAF Gold Cup Semi-Final
Saturday July 22nd, 10 PM ET / 7 PM PT
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
TV: FS1 & Univision Deportes
(Stay tuned to SoccerNation.com and follow @Soccer_Nation on Twitter for more coverage of the United State’s Men’s National Team and the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.)