USA faces tough Salvadoran challenge
If head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is to be believed, the United States men’s national team won’t glean much from their 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against El Salvador (live, FOX, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET).
After all, these drab, defensive Central American outfits seldom make for educational contests. Or so he claimed after the USA lost a friendly to Belgium 4-2 in late May, anyway. “We want to play teams like Belgium, like Germany, like Russia or Italy, because there’s so much you can read from those games, there’s so much you can see,” Klinsmann said at the time. “When you lose them it’s not such a big pleasure, but I’d rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador for the 100th time, because that’s where you learn.”
The barb was probably not aimed at El Salvador specifically but rather a dig at the uniformity in approach teams from the region take when they face the United States. They sit in and try as much as possible to prevent actual soccer from being played, and that isn’t much help when you’re trying to improve stylistically the way the United States is.
Yet whatever their ideological differences, the Salvadorans will prove tough to break down. “We have a lot of respect for El Salvador,” a conciliatory Klinsmann said on Saturday. “They are gifted with technical players, gifted with fast transition players who have a good understanding between each other. We know that this is going to be a huge hurdle.”
So far this tournament, every opponent in the group stage – Belize, Cuba and even Costa Rica, against better hope – has bunkered in and sabotaged the game for the sake of staving off a loss. None of them had much success with it, mind, since they went down 6-1, 4-1 and 1-0, respectively. The monotony of facing that kind of negative tactics game after game is “like Groundhog Day”, star forward Landon Donovan said after the win over Costa Rica.
Yet the Americans will have to find a way through a stylistically unambitious team yet again on Sunday if they hope to face the winner of the subsequent Honduras-Costa Rica game in the semifinals in Dallas on Wednesday.
“Our expectation is that they’ll do what every other team has done and defend with everything they have,” said Donovan on Saturday. “They’ll try to catch us on a counter or a set piece so we have to be concentrated. We can’t be too cute and try to do too much. I don’t care who you are, you can’t defend in 90 degree weather for 90 minutes. If we keep the tempo high, then I think we’ll be successful.”
While the USA’s all-time record against El Salvador is an unambiguous 15-1-5 – they haven’t quite played each other a hundred times – with the lone loss coming back in 1992, Klinsmann has nevertheless opted to use the brief pre-knockout stage window to power up his squad. Defenders Corey Ashe and Oguchi Onyewu have been swapped out for first string center backs Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, although the latter won’t join until the semifinals. Forwards Jack McInerney and Herculez Gomez have left the team for Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon.
Jurgen Klinsmann's USA side will hope to avoid upset against El Salvador (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images).
The question, then, is whether the new pieces can be fit seamlessly into the team that forged its own rhythm over the last four games. A chemistry has been developed within an unfamiliar B-team of disparate pieces – made up of hopefuls and last-hopers for next year’s World Cup – but several new players could be slipped into the lineup for this game.
“It makes it better,” argued captain DaMarcus Beasley. “They’re good players, they’re going to help us down the stretch. They can’t do anything but help. They’re not going to be disruptive at all.”
“In the knockout stages you can’t make any mistakes,” explained Klinsmann. “You get punished and the thing is over. So having those four guys on board that bring us quality and that alertness and also competition is only a good thing. Chemistry-wise, they know each other so well it’s absolutely no problem.”
If the transition is indeed smooth, the injection of ability comes in welcome places. Besler and Gonzalez offer a stronger pairing in central defense than Michael Orozco Fiscal and Clarence Goodson. Played out on the wing, Johnson’s mazy runs could help create better spacing and service for the forwards. Gordon, meanwhile, can offer an alternative up front late in games.
As for their opponents. Forward Rodolfo Zelaya, who has scored all three of El Salvador’s goals in their 1-1-1 group stage, seeing them through to the knockout round as the best third-placed team, will have to be kept in check. So too will winger Osael Romero, who is capable of positioning Zelaya to score with a single pass. And that’s to say nothing of a sell-out crowd of 71,000 expected to be very partial to the Salvadorans, who count a great many countrymen in the area.
Then there’s the fresh grass sod rolled over the artificial turf for the occasion, which one can never quite foretell the performance of, and, like often this tournament, the 90-something-degree temperatures.
Yet for all these factors and variables, the Americans are expected to push into the semifinals and extend their record winning streak to nine. Even if this isn’t exactly “El Salvador for the 100th time.”