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USA outlasts El Salvador to advance, but must improve to succeed at Gold Cup

Late first half goals from a pair of defenders sent the USA on its way to a 2-0 win over El Salvador, but the Americans remain a work in progress as they reach the Gold Cup semifinals.

PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. national team can play better, and it’ll have to to win a sixth CONCACAF Gold Cup. But the Americans never have to be at their best to clear the continental championship’s quarterfinal hurdle, and that proved to be the case again Wednesday at Lincoln Financial Field, where first-half goals from U.S. defenders Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj were enough to see the hosts past El Salvador, 2-0.

It was a game that featured plenty of open space and good scoring chances for both sides despite the stifling humidity and chippy play that went unpunished by Canadian referee Drew Fischer. In the end, a bit of extra quality in the offensive third made the difference for the victors.

Here are three thoughts from the USA’s win:

Reinforcements make a difference...

U.S. coach Bruce Arena used the three-game group stage to learn more about the edges and depth of his player pool, and then called in veterans Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe to power his team to a title. Some may question the value of another Gold Cup run when measured against an opportunity to develop additional players for a potential trip to Russia next summer, but Arena felt there was an important balance to strike between planning for the future and building on the program’s championship foundation.

He’ll likely feel he got that balance right on Wednesday, as three of his veterans made plays that were crucial to the two-goal win.

The USA (3-0-1) nearly fell behind in just the third minute. A poor pass by Lichaj was picked off by El Salvador’s leading scorer, Rodolfo Zelaya. Howard was off his line with vigor and stifled the early chance.

Bradley and Dempsey then set the table for the win. Bradley’s exquisite 41st-minute free kick seemed to hang in the air before making a beeline for Gonzalez’s head. The defender notched his second goal of the tournament (and third in a USA jersey) and Bradley tied Cobi Jones for second on the program’s all-time assists list at 22.

Dempsey surely was hoping to finally catch Landon Donovan at the top of the USMNT scoring chart, but instead he set up Lichaj for a bit of first-half stoppage time redemption. Dempsey’s adroit turn and perfectly-weighted through ball left the right back with just El Salvador’s goalkeeper to beat, which he did by firing through Derby Carrillo's legs.

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...but there’s still chemistry to be found

Arena’s Gold Cup plan always was going to mean a slight sacrifice in chemistry. He overhauled his lineups during the group stage and started 22 of the 23 men who comprised the initial roster. He then brought in his six reinforcements, and when Wednesday’s game kicked off, the number of starters over four matches increased to 27.

And so if this looked like a team that hadn’t played much together, it wasn’t a surprise. Midfield spacing and connection was an issue, as it was in the group stage—although this time more of the problems occurred defensively. El Salvador’s quick, intelligent counterattacking and some untimely American misplays made the game more uncomfortable than necessary.

There was Lichaj’s turnover in the first half, plus mistakes by Matt Hedges and Nagbe in the second (among others), that forced the Americans on to the back foot. But Howard made that early save and El Salvador failed to take advantage of its best looks after that, often seeing its lack of ruthlessness in the penalty area result in a blocked shot or lost opportunity. A better team punishes the USA for those turnovers. Los Cuscatlecos were not that team.

Considering the conditions and roster churn, Arena likely had a potential semifinal starting 11 in mind when he selected Wednesday’s lineup. Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty were on the bench, as were defenders Matt Besler and Jorge Villafaña. Is Dempsey going to play 90 minutes three times in a week? Is Zardes the answer against the likes of Costa Rica or Mexico, who will put the USA under more pressure? Is Nagbe better off in the middle, where he played in Philadelphia, or in a wider role?

The players are there. The championship chemistry still isn’t. They’ll have to find it over the next couple days.

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The tournament is about to get tougher

The Gold Cup traditionally has been a two-game tournament for the USA. The Americans have failed to advance to the final four just once in the competition’s 15 editions and they’re 8-0-1 all-time in quarterfinals, losing only to guest team Colombia on penalties in 2000.

CONCACAF is top-heavy, and the odds of the USA meeting a foe that can upend it ahead of the semifinals is slim. Once there, however, the Gold Cup can get dicey. And it will again on Wednesday in Texas, where the Americans will meet a 3-0-1 Costa Rican side that’s yielded just one goal in four games. Los Ticos defeated Panama, 1-0, in Wednesday night’s doubleheader opener at Lincoln Financial Field.

Costa Rica’s team, while hampered by a rash of injuries, still includes familiar names like Bryan Ruiz and Marco Ureña, and they’ll be hungry to overcome Central America’s streak of Gold Cup futility. Because of the roster changes and nervy performances, this won’t be a U.S. team that scares anybody. History won’t matter, and the margin for error has shriveled. Arena’s cushion is gone. Wednesday’s was the last game before the games get real, and the USA will have to be better to continue its run.