PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. national team called in the big guns in a step expected to help the Americans take control of a Gold Cup wide open for the taking. Anyone hoping for U.S. domination came away from Wednesday's Gold Cup quarterfinal against El Salvador feeling disappointed.
The U.S. did win, riding a pair of goals late in the first half to a 2-0 victory, but the scoreline flattered the Americans on a night when their attack lacked chemistry and the defense looked shaky yet again. Some of the defensive breakdowns were downright comical, but El Salvador spared the U.S. the embarrassment of a historic upset by failing to finish the chances they were repeatedly gifted.
Survive and advance is a simple enough philosophy in tournament play, but as a stacked team expected to win it all, Wednesday's match fell well short of expectations. Bruce Arena will surely argue that style points don't really matter in tournament play. That's easy enough to say, but for a team that just added a stockpile of attacking firepower, we were supposed to see better than the inconsistent and mistake-ridden play we saw far too often from the U.S. during the group stage.
Instead, we saw a U.S. team that was outhustled and outworked for most of the first half.
That wasn't how it was supposed to go. Not in a match between a U.S. with fresh players, and coming in with one day more rest against an El Salvador team that played pretty close to the same starting lineup for four straight matches. Instead, it was El Salvador that was buzzing around the field in the first 40 minutes, and the U.S. that looked slow and unsteady.
"I thought we had a difficult time tonight," U.S. coach Bruce Arena confessed. "Our timing wasn't good. We didn't deal well with the physicality. The game had no rhythm with all the fouls and players falling on the group, but we weren't good on top of it.
"It took us really 30 minutes to play a little bit, and then we got a little bit more assertive and capitalized on a couple of their mistakes. But just a sloppy game overall."
Maybe it was unrealistic to expect the U.S. reinforcements to just show up and dance around El Salvador with ease. It's one thing to bring in talented players, but another to have them hit the ground running in a tournament where the rest of the field has already played three matches. That said, after less than inspiring displays against Panama and Martinique in the group stage, the U.S. was expected to improve significantly with the help of the veteran knockout round replacements.
Instead, it was El Salvador that looked like the sharper, more energized team in the first 30 minutes of the match, and only poor finishing kept the Americans from falling behind early. Tim Howard stepped up with a big save after an Eric Lichaj turnover spawned a breakaway chance.
The tide turned when Omar Gonzalez headed home Michael Bradley's excellent free kick, and El Salvador's defense broke down again just five minutes later for Lichaj's goal.
Eventually, the U.S. took control, with Bradley and Darlington Nagbe settled things down and helping the Americans take control, leaving El Salvador tired and frustrated enough to have two different players bite Americans in off-the-ball incidents.
The U.S. deserves credit for showing poise in the face of adversity, fending off a very game El Salvador team even without playing well, but the Americans will face a much tougher challenge on Saturday in the Gold Cup semifinals against Costa Rica in Arlington, Texas. The match will be the first meeting between the nations since Costa Rica's 4-0 win over the Americans in San Jose, a loss that led to the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. coach.
The current Costa Rica team isn't the same team that won that game last November, with Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas and standout Celso Borges skipping the tournament, as well as a quintet of top players suffering injuries during the group stage. That said, Costa Rica still beat a tough Panama team in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, and still have the ever-dangerous Bryan Ruiz, as well as an attack much better equipped to punish mistakes like the ones the U.S. made on Wednesday.
"We can't be coming out flat like that," Altidore said. "As the games get tougher now, a good Costa Rica team will punish you early on if you come out flat like that.
"I don't think we can come out like we did today in the first 30 (against Costa Rica) and escape without giving up goals," Altidore continued. "We've got to be sharper."
"It has to get much better," Tim Howard said. "(Costa Rica) is a good team, but also I think our standards are high. There's an appearance in the final on the line, so we've got to get better and better."