After brushing aside a persistent, if overmatched, El Salvador side in the quarterfinals, 5–1, the U.S. advances to the semifinals of the Gold Cup, where they will play Honduras on Wednesday (7 pm, FSC, UniMás, Fox Soccer 2Go). Honduras will certainly be the strongest side the U.S. has faced in the tournament so far, but considering the almighty roll the U.S. has been on, it’s hard to see it stopping before the final.
Goals, goals, goals
For much of the modern era, the U.S. has been seen as an athletic, workmanlike team that could compete with teams more talented than itself by playing organized defense, but that struggled to score goals, even against so-called lesser teams. The hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann was a move toward shedding that reputation. The U.S. would play on the floor, pass the ball around, and score goals.
While fans were excited at the hiring, the transformation of the U.S.’s play did not happen overnight, and as recently as January there were grumbles from many quarters that maybe Klinsmann’s time was up, that his experiment had failed. To say that the U.S. has improved since then is a massive understatement. The team has averaged four goals scored per game in the Gold Cup, and while the counterattack and set pieces are still powerful weapons, the U.S. now seems able to score in a wide variety of ways.
It’s not clear what, if anything, changed about Klinsmann’s approach, or if the team just “got it.” Maybe it’s as simple as Jozy Altidore’s figuring out of the international game, and his confidence and commitment spreading to the rest of the team. Maybe it’s Landon Donovan with a chip on his shoulder. It could be all of those things or none, but what matters is this: the U.S.—right now, today—is a very dangerous offensive team. No other team in the Gold Cup is as potent, and that is the major reason why the U.S. must be seen as the favorite to lift the trophy.
Honduras finished group play with a record of 2-0-1, defeating Haiti 2–0, El Salvador 1–0, and then falling to Trinidad and Tobago, 2–0. They then defeated Costa Rica, 1–0, in the quarterfinals. Honduras, like most of the teams in the tournament, including the U.S., sent a “B team” to the competition, and it’s clear that their depth does not approach that of the U.S.
(Here’s a non-Gold-Cup-related thought experiment for you: If all the teams competing in the World Cup had their best 11 players abducted by aliens and were forced to compete using their B teams, how would the U.S. do, and who would win?)
While a full-strength Honduras side would be a formidable opponent, this version has been unable to dictate play for long stretches. Indeed, their games have been marked more by physical play than by passing, with a red-card tackle forcing Honduras to play down a man for more than a half in the loss to Trinidad and Tobago.
However, Honduras hasn’t given up many goals, with the two versus T&T while a man down being the only ones conceded. As such, the U.S. team should expect a physical, massed defensive effort from Honduras. All that U.S. goal-scoring variety will likely be needed to get behind Honduras, at least unscathed.
After the group stage, the U.S. made four roster changes, calling up Matt Besler, Alan Gordon, Eddie Johnson, and Omar Gonzalez. Besler started in central defense in the quarterfinal, and Johnson played as a sub, scoring a vital second-half goal with his first touch of the ball. Gonzalez couldn’t join up with the team until after the game, and should now be available for selection.
Considering the difficulty Clay Goodson had with El Salvador’s speedy Rodolfo Zelaya, it would not be a surprise to see Besler and Gonzalez reunited as the starting center-back pairing against Honduras. Those two together form a very mobile partnership, one that can handle the speed of movement of players like Honduras’s Andy Najar.
Gonzalez, of course, has gained a bit of a reputation for having very good games marred by an individual error that has led to opponents’ goal-scoring opportunities. If he can concentrate for 90 minutes, the U.S. should look for a shut-out, as all the U.S.’s goals conceded have come from defensive errors, rather than great skill by their opponents.
The opening lineup from the quarterfinal will likely start the semi, with two changes: Gonzalez will replace Goodson, and Johnson will replace José Torres. Torres has been good for the U.S., but Johnson has a much higher ceiling for his play, and his strength and skill will be very useful against a physical defense.
Starting lineup: Nick Rimando; DaMarcus Beasley (captain), Besler, Gonzalez, Michael Parkhurst; Kyle Beckerman, Mix Diskerud; Johnson, Donovan, Joe Corona; Chris Wondolowski.
The game will be tighter than any the U.S. has played so far, but the U.S.’s strength in reserve will be too much for Honduras and the U.S. will score, eventually. If they can maintain defensive concentration, as noted, the U.S. wins, 2–0.