PHILADELPHIA -- The U.S. men's national team is headed to the semifinals of the 2017 Gold Cup courtesy of a 2-0 victory over El Salvador. First-half goals from Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj gave the U.S. the lead it needed, despite a few anxious moments in the second half.
Here are three thoughts from the Americans' victory.
1. U.S. keeps emotions in check to advance
For the majority of the first half, the style and emotion fit El Salvador's game plan. There were plenty of off-the-ball shenanigans, with no shortage of scratching, clawing and, yes, even apparent biting and pinching. Jozy Altidore bore the brunt of Los Cuscatlecos' attentions when referee Drew Fischer turned his head for a second, but he was commendably able to keep his cool.
There was plenty of rolling around and playing for fouls, as well, which contributed to the U.S. looking frustrated and out of sync. It also looked like it might rue an apparent 17th-minute goal from Gyasi Zardes that was erased due to a tight offside decision.
The game needed a goal, and the U.S. got it in the 41st minute from a familiar supply line: the set piece. Michael Bradley whipped a free kick into the box, and Gonzalez's glancing header was enough to flummox Salvadoran keeper Derby Carrillo, giving the U.S. the goal it needed.
The home side didn't need to wait long to grab a precious second, either. In the second minute of first-half stoppage time, a deft turn and pass from Clint Dempsey saw him put Lichaj through on goal, and the defender fired home with a shot through Carrillo's legs to put the U.S. up 2-0.
The U.S. had some anxious moments to start the second half, with the home side guilty of giveaways that led to transition opportunities. Matt Hedges was caught in possession to spark one such chance, but a combination of poor decisions by El Salvador and effective defending from the U.S. kept the visitors off the scoreboard.
The Gold Cup host now heads into the semifinals to face Costa Rica, which prevailed 1-0 over Panama in Wednesday's early quarterfinal. The Ticos have had more than their share of injuries, with Joel Campbell, Bryan Oviedo, Cristian Gamboa and Johan Venegas all replaced after the group stage.
All told, a spot in the final is there for the taking, but the U.S. will need to improve on both sides of the ball to advance.
2. Veteran call-ups offer mixed performances
U.S. coach Bruce Arena's addition of six players, including five veterans, has left it as a heavy favorite to win the tournament, though their impact Wednesday proved to be a mixed bag.
Tim Howard was sharp on the rare occasions he was called upon. Bradley proved his usually adept self at breaking up plays, which given the fact that Darlington Nagbe was tasked with getting farther forward was a bigger challenge than compared to a night when, say, Kellyn Acosta is partnered alongside him. His set piece delivery on Gonzalez's goal was critical, as well.
But one concern on the night was the difficulty with which the U.S. midfield had in connecting with Dempsey and Altidore. The U.S. dominated possession in the opening 45 minutes and seemed to have little problem venturing into El Salvador's half. But connecting with Dempsey and Altidore was a challenge. The latter was limited to 14 touches in the first half, while Dempsey had 20. Part of that was down to the way El Salvador was packing the middle, but there also were moments when Nagbe seemed too content to play the ball out wide, instead of running at the defense or finding one of the strikers.
The numbers improved only marginally in the second half, and it left Altidore cutting a frustrated figure, though the continued off-the-ball antics did little to improve his mood. Dempsey did well to set up Lichaj's goal, but all told, finding the forwards more frequently will be a point of emphasis in the days leading up to the semifinal.
3. Lichaj overcomes early jitters, has a night to remember
Lichaj's night got off to the most inauspicious of starts. Less than three minutes in, the Nottingham Forest defender hit a weak back-pass that was pounced on by Rodolfo Zelaya, leaving the Salvadoran with a clear breakaway. Fortunately for Lichaj, Howard came to his rescue and pawed the ball away from the striker's feet.
Shortly thereafter, an errant pass created another dicey situation for the U.S., but Lichaj eventually settled down. His smart run and powerful finish not only gave the U.S. some valuable breathing room heading into halftime, but it was his first goal in a U.S. shirt, as well.
If there is one worry about his defending, it was that he looked a bit vulnerable against El Salvador when isolated in the open field. But this will be a night that Lichaj won't soon forget. He showed a good mentality to rebound from an early mistake, and with Arena still looking for depth at the full-back positions, he will likely continue to get some opportunities.