PHILADELPHIA — Several familiar faces rejoined the U.S. men’s national team lineup Wednesday, a fresh injection of experience and resolve for the final, week-long sprint toward the CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer title.
With a mix of newcomers and holdovers, the Americans needed almost one half to find their bearings before striking twice in a five-minute span and downing El Salvador, 2-0, before 31,615 at Lincoln Financial Field.
The goals came from unsuspecting characters — center back Omar Gonzalez and right back Eric Lichaj — as the United States advanced to Saturday’s semifinal against Costa Rica at AT&T Stadium near Dallas.
The Ticos booked their place here earlier in the day with a 1-0 triumph over Panama.
In Thursday’s quarterfinals, Canada will face Jamaica and reigning champion Mexico will play Honduras in suburban Phoenix.
The Americans (3-0-1 in this tournament) extended their unbeaten streak against El Salvador to 14-0-3 since 1993 and claimed a semifinal berth for the ninth consecutive Gold Cup. However, they struggled at the start.
“We had a difficult time,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “Our timing wasn’t good. We didn’t deal well with the physicality. The game had no rhythm with all the fouls and players falling on the ground. But we weren’t good on top of it. It took us 30 minutes to play a little bit, and then we got more assertive. Just a sloppy game overall.”
The match was marred by El Salvador’s use of soccer’s dark arts in the second half. In a goal-line incident, Henry Romero grabbed Jozy Altidore by the nipple. Altidore and Gonzalez were apparently bitten.
Said Altidore: “My girl is mad at me. She’s mad at me, she’s mad at Romero. She’s like, ‘Only I can bite you, only I can grab your nipples.’ … In CONCACAF, it never ceases to amaze me.”
Arena started five of the six players who had joined the delegation after the group stage of the 12-team regional tournament. Four carried a wealth of international experience (goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Michael Bradley and forwards Clint Dempsey and Altidore) while the fifth has seized a starting role in World Cup qualifiers (Darlington Nagbe).
Their inclusion came as no surprise; the question was how Arena would fill the other slots. Matt Hedges (fifth appearance) joined Gonzalez, a 2014 World Cup starter, in central defense, while Justin Morrow (third) and Lichaj (13th) manned the corners.
Notable absences: midfielder Kellyn Acosta and defender Jorge Villafaña.
Arena, though, needed to look beyond Wednesday. He didn’t underestimate El Salvador but had to consider another match 72 hours later against a more seasoned foe half the continent away. A lineup with a few inexperienced players should still be enough to advance.
The Salvadorans were vulnerable on defense but courageous, quick and technical in possession during an upbeat start. In the days leading to the match, Arena had praised them for stylish, proactive soccer. In his comments Tuesday, he apologized in advance for referring to them by numbers instead of names.
The first name to catch his attention Wednesday was Rodolfo Zelaya, who pounced on Lichaj’s soft back pass in the third minute and raced free. A charging, sliding Howard intervened at the top of the penalty area.
“The first 45 [minutes] was really bad,” Lichaj said. “I told [Howard], ‘Thank you’ at the end of the game because that was a big save. He got me out of the dirt.”
In the 17th minute, a dodgy offside call voided Gyasi Zardes’s apparent goal for the U.S. team.
The Americans lacked cohesion in trying to sustain possession, but as the half melted away, they went ahead on a set piece.
In the 41st minute, Bradley launched a 35-yard free kick into a dangerous spot in the box. Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5 aerial expert from the University of Maryland, gained inside position on Darwin Ceren and directed a seven-yard header over goalkeeper Derby Carrillo for his third international goal.
“Michael hit a great free kick,” Gonzalez said, “and on that one, I decided to go near post. It was a perfect ball. I was able to get the slightest touch on it.”
Pressure relieved, the Americans doubled the lead in added time on a well-crafted sequence. Morrow carried on the left side and supplied Dempsey, whose clever touch allowed for a neat turn and through ball to Lichaj for an eight-yarder between Carrillo’s legs for his first U.S. goal.
With the match in their grasp, the Americans worked on sustaining possession. Giveaways, however, led to Salvadoran counterattacks: Zelaya fired high on a partial breakaway and Denis Pineda missed wide by a whisker.
The Americans were not making it easy on themselves.
El Salvador mixed dangerous forays with nasty antics, resulting in cards, warnings and confrontations.
“There should’ve been players sent off,” Arena said. There weren’t. Nonetheless, the margin remained intact.
In the first match, Costa Rica went ahead on an own goal in the 77th minute.
David Guzman served a free kick from 40 yards into the heart of the penalty area. Although he wasn’t under great pressure, Panama’s Anibal Godoy headed the ball backward and past his goalkeeper, Jose Calderon.
The late-afternoon start, played in oppressive heat, featured few scoring opportunities in a slow-paced first half. Play picked up after intermission, and both goalkeepers made quality saves.
After the goal, Costa Rican keeper Patrick Pemberton took a beating in leaping for a pair of high balls deep in the box but remained in the match. The Ticos advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2009. Despite their success advancing to World Cups, they have never won the Gold Cup and reached the final once.