After sweeping the group stage, three-for-three, and topping Group C, the U.S. will take on El Salvador on Sunday in the Gold Cup quarterfinals (3:30pm, FOX, Univision, Fox Soccer 2Go). Regardless of the outcome of that game or any that might follow, this tournament has to be seen as a great success for Jürgen Klinsmann and his staff. With positive performances from young players like Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona, a breakout by Chris Wondolowski, and positive returns for Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan, the player pool for the World Cup has been expanded, which was the primary goal for the U.S. in this tournament.
However, now that the group stage has been so comfortably dispensed with, the focus of the United States team shifts to winning the thing. With four roster changes, Klinsmann has made a statement of intent.
After the group stage, advancing teams now have the ability to make up to four changes to the roster ahead of the quarterfinal games. Klinsmann used all four, swapping players out primarily due injury concerns, but also to bring in more experience. In the back line, Oguchi Onyewu sprained an ankle against Belize, and Herculez Gomez has continued to feel the effects of a knee problem he brought with him into camp. Young players Corey Ashe and Jack McInerney have both also been sent back to their clubs.
Replacing those players are Matt Besler, Alan Gordon, and Eddie Johnson. Omar Gonzalez will also come in if the U.S. advances to the semifinals. Of those players, Gordon is perhaps the odd man out, as the other three have all become firmly entrenched in the U.S. first team. It will be telling against El Salvador and beyond if Besler and Johnson push Goodson or Orozco Fiscal from the starting lineup, as both performed well against Costa Rica.
To DM or not to DM
Versus Costa Rica, Klinsmann surprised many by finally starting Stuart Holden and Mix Diskerud beside one another in central midfield, instead of Kyle-Beckerman-plus-1. While Holden, especially, did well not to forget his defensive responsibilities, those same responsibilities restrained him from contributing offensively as effectively as he might have.
Against Costa Rica and, indeed, many CONCACAF teams, playing without a traditional defensive midfielder probably makes sense. Teams that want to bunker down and get ten men behind the ball are more easily broken down by increasing the number of creative, ball-playing midfielders. However, against more talented opposition, players like Beckerman have their place to anchor the space in front of the defense.
El Salvador will not prosper against the U.S. by trying to pass around them, so expect another defensive shield from the Central Americans. As a result, Klinsmann may continue with the Diskerud/Holden midfield.
Regardless of the starting midfield, what’s become very clear is that Klinsmann is on a roll as far as making in-game adjustments to his team. In every group game, the U.S. substitutions have made telling contributions in the U.S.’s favor, including Shea’s game-winner against Costa Rica, which was clearly cathartic for both the team and the player himself. If the U.S. finds itself in difficulty at the half or after an hour, Klinsmann will not hesitate to change things up, and for the better.
El Salvador finished the group stage with a record of 1-1-1. Rodolfo Zelaya has scored all three of their goals, from a free kick, a header, and from a rebound of his own penalty kick. They opened group play with a 2–2 tie against Trinidad & Tobago, were defeated 1–0 by Honduras, and beat Haiti by the same score.
While Zalaya is clearly a danger, El Salvador has not greatly impressed in this year’s Gold Cup. Recent results before the tournament have also been negative, with consecutive losses to Paraguat, Ecuador, and Venezuela in friendlies. This will be another game that is much more about what the United States does, rather than what El Salvador is capable of. It will not matter in what shape or using what tactics El Salvador set up. The U.S.’s choices will carry more weight.
While the U.S. is certainly not looking past El Salvador, this is a game the U.S. should win. The same rubric as against during the group stage applies here: if the U.S. maintains defensive concentration and takes its chances, El Salvador will have no answers. The U.S. wins, 3–0.