The U.S. men's national team is bolstered and ready for a charge at a sixth CONCACAF Gold Cup title, but it found itself with a fight on its hands against quarterfinal opponent El Salvador prior to gaining the separation needed in a 2-0 victory.
Defenders Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj scored at the end of the first half, and the Americans survived a number of El Salvador chances and some cheap antics to reach Saturday's semifinal against Costa Rica in Arlington, Texas.
The U.S. surged forward from the start at Lincoln Financial Field, with Paul Arriola forcing the issue in the third minute and a dangerous run down the center, only for a last-ditch tackle to block his chance from 18 yards and put it out for a corner.
After the ensuing clearance, the U.S. dodged a massive bullet. Eric Lichaj mishit a back pass to Tim Howard, gifting Rodolfo Zelaya a golden chance on a breakaway, but the veteran goalkeeper came sliding off his line and pawed away the ball without making contact with the forward.
A few minutes later, the U.S. nearly struck on a set piece. Gonzalez's goal-bound attempt fell for an onside Clint Dempsey at the post, but goalkeeper Derby Carrillo recovered to cover the space and make the save, denying Dempsey a goal that would have brought him level with Landon Donovan for the USMNT's all-time record.
El Salvador struck right back in the wide-open early stages of the game, coming up with a nicely designed set piece of its own. Alexander Larin curled around to the center of the box to meet a free kick and had an open shooting lane, only to have his attempt blocked before it reached Howard's goal.
Jozy Altidore forced a save in the 16th minute, receiving a pass from Darlington Nagbe, turning and firing on frame, only for Carrillo to come up with the save.
Moments later, Gyasi Zardes appeared to give the USA the lead, with Dempsey playing him through on the left channel before he chipped over Carrillo, but the offside flag went up, disallowing the strike. Replays showed Zardes was level with the final defender as Dempsey played the ball.
The USA got its go-ahead goal five minutes before halftime off a free kick. Michael Bradley did the honors to set it up, serving in a dangerous ball that Gonzalez managed to flick in off the back of his head while diving toward the goal to give the USA a 1-0 lead.
Lichaj doubled the USA's advantage in stoppage time, toeing the offside line to receive Dempsey's pinpoint, defense-splitting ball before nutmegging Carrillo with his excellent finish to make it 2-0.
El Salvador came close to slicing the deficit in half in the 51st minute, nearly capitalizing on a careless giveaway by defender Matt Hedges by the midfield circle. The turnover sprung Zelaya down the center, but his attempt from long range with Howard off his line sailed over the bar.
El Salvador fired another warning shot moments later, off another giveaway, with Nagbe and Lichaj at fault and allowing Denis Pineda the time and ability to fire a low blast toward goal, only to miss inches wide of the left post.
The match devolved into physical play and off-ball antics, and it reached a new level when Henry Romero appeared to bite Altidore in the back of his shoulder while jockeying for position inside the El Salvador box.
El Salvador continued to threaten and nearly broke through in the 73rd minute on a wild sequence in the USA box, which wound up with the ball being ushered to safety after a few tense moments, which wound up being the last El Salvador threat of the night.
Here are the rosters for both teams:
GOALKEEPERS: Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas) Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids)
DEFENDERS: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
FORWARDS: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS: Oscar Arroyo (Alianza FC); Derby Carrillo (Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja); Benji Villalobos (CD Aguila)
DEFENDERS: Alexander Larin (Alianza FC); Ivan Mancia (Alianza FC); Ruben Marroquin (Alianza FC); Milton Molina (AD Isidro Metapan); Henry Romero (Alianza FC); Bryan Tamacas (Santa Tecla FC)
MIDFIELDERS: Efrain Burgos (Reno 1868 FC); Darwin Ceren (San Jose Earthquakes); Oscar Ceren (Alianza FC); Roberto Dominguez (Santa Tecla FC); Andres Flores (New York Cosmos); Victor Garcia (CD Aguila); Gerson Mayen (Santa Tecla FC); Richard Menjivar (New York Cosmos); Narciso Orellana (Alianza FC); Denis Pineda (CD Santa Clara)
FORWARDS: Harold Alas (Santa Tecla FC); Nelson Bonilla (CD Nacional); Irvin Herrera (New York Cosmos); Rodolfo Zelaya (Alianza FC)