Bruce Arena, U.S. wary of El Salvador team that's 'closing the gap'

PHILADELPHIA -- U.S. men's national team manager Bruce Arena said that he's been impressed by what he's seen out of Gold Cup quarterfinal opponents El Salvador, and that this side is one of the better Salvadoran teams he's seen "in a number of years."

"We're going to have to keep an eye on them," said Arena about Los Cuscatlecos. "They move ball very well, they keep it on the ground."

Arena added that based on the way El Salvador played during the group stage, he expects them to attack the U.S. and play with an open style.

"They did that against Mexico in the opening game in their group, and they've done that in every game, so I think they're going to continue to play their style," Arena said. "They don't look like a team that will drop back with a lot of numbers and just look to counterattack."

Arena said the performance of El Salvador is in keeping with the improvements shown by the smaller countries in the tournament, several of which have tested the Gold Cup's presumed heavyweights.

"They all play a pretty good style of play," said Arena about the teams in the Gold Cup. "I've been very impressed. In our group I was very impressed with Martinique, I think they have some good players.

"That was the case in other groups as well. I think the gap has closed a little bit, which is good for CONCACAF and good for the tournament."

Arena was once again asked about his decision to bring in six new and more experienced players, and if the stress of the winner-take-all aspect of the knockout rounds influenced his thinking. Arena said that wasn't the case.

"I was just following the rules of the tournament, that you can bring in new players," he said. "I thought the group stage would be a great opportunity to look at some new players. If we advanced in the tournament, it would make sense to bring in some more experienced players.

"Giving those players that came in a little bit of a break, and not having to have the previous three-and-a-half weeks with the team, it would be good for them. That was simply the plan. I decided to do that well in advance of the tournament, so it had nothing to do with where we were, penalties or anything like that."

One of the players that Arena brought in is Seattle Sounders FC forward Clint Dempsey. The question of Dempsey's role going forward, be it as a starter or substitute, has been debated of late given that he's now 35. Arena indicated that Dempsey's status is being regularly evaluated based on how the U.S. veteran performs and feels on the pitch.

"We'll see. [Dempsey] will demonstrate that when he has his opportunities," said Arena. "When he plays, he'll demonstrate if he's a 90-minute player on a full-time basis or plays a different role. We will see that clearly over 2017, and that will give us some good indications as we head into 2018."

If Wednesday's match is tied after 90 minutes, it will go straight to penalties. The U.S. missed two spot kicks in its group stage finale against Nicaragua, though still prevailed 3-0. Arena said the team did practice penalties, but insisted that they haven't been a bigger point of emphasis over the last few days.

"It's a big difference from taking penalties in practice to taking them in a game," said Arena. "Every player that will take a penalty for us is capable of making it. How they deal with the pressure at the moment is another thing. We've taken penalties, we did that today. We're going to put our best players up there if that's the case and see how they do."