After El Salvador finished using our players as teething toys the US had advanced to the Gold Cup semifinals anyway. The 2-nil score line may have appeared comfortable but the performance was anything but. Thanks to our Secretary of Defense (Timmy H), the US survived a horrid (and possibly game crippling) back pass early in the night from Eric Lichaj who had an up and down game to say the least. Overall, we were dominated for large stretches and though things stabilized after the break we rarely threatened outside of the 5 or 10 minute stretch at the end the first half that saw us score twice. The one other opportunity for the US came in the first half when Captain America, the Duce, slipped Zardes in behind and the Galaxy man chipped over the El Salvadoran goalie into the far corner of the net. Unfortunately, in a foreshadowing of the incompetent officiating to come, the AR incorrectly raised his flag for offsides. Thankfully Captain America was not to be denied an assist on the night. After Omar Gonzalez knocked in a free kick cross from our stat-sheet captain Michael Bradley, Eric Lichaj decided to atone for his earlier error. He stepped up to win a great interception at midfield. The Nottingham Forest player of the year found Nagbe who barely managed to continue the pass to Dempsey. Dempsey displayed his usual sick touch leaving a defender diving at air. Meanwhile Lichaj had continued his lung-busting run and Dempsey smoothly slipped him in behind the back line. A hard, low shot found the far corner and Lichaj attempted (which is rather charitable) to recreate Donovan’s famous Algeria celebration diving towards the corner flag face first. The second half brought less goal scoring opportunities for both sides but more drama. As the game devolved into something more akin to a one-sided no-rules bar brawl (something not unknown to the city of Philadelphia I’m sure) the best thing that can be said is that the US managed to avoid serious injury and any retaliatory suspensions. Costa Rica is up next, in the biggest test to date for this Gold Cup squad.
Starting 11 – Once again the starting lineup is a point of easy contention. Arena continues to frustrate me with massive inconsistencies. This was at least expected this time as he folded in 5 of his 6 roster changes. And in all honesty, I was pretty content with the selections. It didn’t bring the boost many expected but hopefully moving forward they will allow Arena to bring some stability to the starting 11. Whether or not he’ll want to keep a similar selection is up for debate as he’s left with more questions than answers after this performance.
Officiating – I’m mirroring Ian’s category here but I have a slightly different take. I have no problem ripping officiating to shreds. Being an official myself, I completely understand the official’s perspective and therefore I have a very good idea of what they do wrong. I’ve had my fair share of awful games, everyone does, but if anyone has ever deserved severe criticism (and possible suspension) Drew Fischer did after tonight. Allowing this level of abuse was simply inexcusable. They don’t allow the El Salvadoran hijinks in prison ground football. Hopefully we don’t see Mr. Fischer for a long time.
Survive and advance – We can talk about how ugly the match was from a quality perspective but at this point all that matters is winning. That has been Arena’s only charge since US Soccer flipped the panic switch last November. He’s done it so far and if he keeps this up his two year tenure will have to be seen as a success. Next up is Costa Rica and this should be the biggest test to date for Arena’s side outside of the trip to the Azteca. Hopefully we can continue to survive and advance.
Player Ratings: (1-10 scale)
Howard: 7 – Didn’t have a whole lot to do most of the night but came up with a couple crucial saves to secure the victory. Early on, Lichaj hung him out to dry but the Rapids’ #1 came through big. Later he faced a couple buzzing shots from El Salvador but he kept his first clean sheet of the tournament.
Morrow: 5 – Ok performance. Didn’t provide a whole lot but did alright with Zardes in front of him.
Hedges: 2 – Completely agree with Ian’s analysis here. His grade gets the slight boost from the one good tackle but on the international stage, against a far inferior opponent this is unacceptable. He was torched like a crème brulee multiple times. He has no future at this level.
Gonzalez: 8 – Commanded things well, especially considering he was playing next to an elephant on skates. He chipped in with a huge goal and he may have the tournament Golden Boot in mind moving forward.
Lichaj: 5 – He had a performance more uneven than Donald Trump’s campaign. Nearly gifted El Salvador the lead but rebounded to make an absolutely electric run resulting in a goal. As I noted before the celebration leaves much to be desired but that’s ok from a defender. I think he still deserves another look but he is on very thin ice moving forward. Perhaps on his last international chance.
Zardes: 6 – I thought he did decently. Should’ve had a goal off a great run and finish from Dempsey. Showed a great connection with Clint and it just seems like if the US is going to get anything out of Zardes he needs to be on the pitch at the same time with Duce. His passing and touch, as always, need to improve.
Bradley: 5 – A non-participant for much of the match. I guess at least that means he wasn’t committing his usual turnovers and other negative plays. Did hit a decent ball that Gonzalez headed home. That was really his only input all night.
Nagbe: 6 – Solid night from the Timbers man. Generally caused problems and was decent passing. Still a little slow with his choices and seemed to get a bit lost at times.
Arriola: 6 – Was our best player for the opening 30 some minutes. Was the only one bringing real energy from the opening whistle. Unfortunately he faded pretty badly, particularly in the second half. Also had an unfortunate collision with an El Salvadoran player that has earned him the nickname “Nut Cracker.” The incident didn’t appear intentional but it also looked like he didn’t particularly try to stop it. His crossing is absolutely woeful; if he could correct that he might be a huge piece going forward.
Dempsey: 7 – Still searching for the record tying goal he contributed massively in other ways. He struggled a bit early on trying to find connections but eventually caught up to speed. Should’ve had 2 assists as Ian noted. And it’s just so fun to watch him. He makes the game fun and just does shit that others don’t even try. Continues to be a critical piece to this team.
Altidore: 3 – Poor night. Couldn’t hold the ball. Couldn’t connect passes. Couldn’t find the net. He was brought in to be the talisman at the top of this attack and boy did he fall far short of that.
Morris: 4 – You want your subs to make an impact and he just didn’t. I was good with the sub choice but he didn’t deliver. Did take a punch and kept rolling so the lack of retaliation I guess is something good.
Acosta: 3 – Poor night. He’s playing himself out of the picture at this point. Couldn’t keep the ball or find passes or shield the defense.
Pontius: 5 – Short night for the former DCU icon/resident cripple. Didn’t have much time to do anything. It’s looking like he’s finally gotten over his injury bug so maybe he can be a big piece moving forward.
Arena: 4 – Really didn’t like the players he sent home. Don’t like the continued changes to the starting 11. Didn’t seem to have much cohesion drilled into this squad. Granted the players didn’t help him out at all on the night. And he did get us into the semis so that’s something.
Costa Rica up next should provide a stiffer test. Really need to improve if we want to get back to the final after missing out in the last edition.