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Like Lichaj, USA recognizes its faults en route to Gold Cup semifinal vs. Costa Rica

A five-minute scoring outburst at the end of the first half was enough for the Americans to secure passage to the semifinals, but they're not oblivious to the improvements needed to continue their Gold Cup run.

PHILADELPHIA — Eric Lichaj had reason to celebrate and he started to do so with some enthusiasm, but it was as if his mind or body or some combination thereof decided right in the middle of it all to stop abruptly. The defender raced toward the left corner flag on the north side of Lincoln Financial Field, dove and never really came close to slipping the surly bonds of Earth. Instead, he sort just of plopped on to the grass. And the grass grabbed onto him like it was made of Velcro.

“I started running and I realized, ‘I’m really tired. I’m going to fall over,'” Lichaj said of the moment following his first goal for the U.S. national team. “I was just laying there until the guys came [over].”

They did, because it really was an event worth celebrating. Lichaj’s goal in first-half stoppage time lifted the USA to a 2-0 lead over El Salvador in Wednesday night’s CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal and pretty much sealed passage to the continental championship’s final four. The Americans (3-0-1) will meet Costa Rica (3-0-1) on Saturday in Dallas for a spot in the title game, and for all the recent discussion about depth and new faces and the next 12 months for Bruce Arena’s national team, the men now in camp want to win this trophy. And Lichaj’s goal brought them one step closer.

But for Lichaj, that step comes as part of a long, circuitous journey he couldn’t simply ignore in the euphoria following the goal. He’d had a rough first half, which started with an awful back pass that was stolen and nearly converted by Salvadoran forward Rodolfo Zelaya. USA goalkeeper Tim Howard, one of the five talented, starting-caliber veterans recruited as knockout-round reinforcements, bailed out Lichaj with an outstanding save. The USA then struggled to establish its footing, and Lichaj found himself on the periphery as much of the play went through Justin Morrow and Gyasi Zardes on the American left.

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The 28-year-old wasn’t feeling good about his performance. So when that lack of action on the right allowed Lichaj the freedom to continue a run deep into the offensive third—where he was able to meet up with a wonderful feed from Clint Dempsey—he enjoyed his moment but knew he must stay grounded.

“The first 45 [minutes] was really bad. I just tried to keep it simple," Lichaj said. "That first pass back to Tim was not very good at all. But I told him, ‘thank you’ at the end of the game, because that was a big save from him and he got me out of the dirt there. I needed that goal, if anything, because I wasn’t having the best of games,”

Coming after the USA’s 2-0 win on a steamy evening in South Philadelphia, these were not the words of a player redeemed or of the protagonist in a story with a happy ending. The hosts moved on, but Arena’s team hasn’t gelled or generated the sort of momentum typically seen in squads that win tournaments. And while that’s by design, it’s not a given that all the roster and tactical churn will forge a team that can beat Los Ticos. El Salvador certainly could’ve made Wednesday’s quarterfinal a bit tighter if it had the composure and ruthlessness to punish a couple American misplays. And U.S. players knew that. And so their demeanor was similar to Lichaj’s–happy, but far from celebratory.

“I thought we had a difficult time tonight. Our timing wasn’t good,” Arena said following a game that will be dissected for some time thanks to the fouling, biting and apparent nipple twisting that featured. “We didn’t deal well with the physicality. The game had no rhythm … It took us 30 minutes to play a little bit and then we got a little bit more assertive in different positions on the field. But it’s just a sloppy game overall.”

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None of the USA’s four performances in this tournament has been comprehensive, and the search for depth plus the desire to win a title has resulted in necessary compromise.

Lichaj embodies those competing priorities.

Despite a productive career in England, where he just was named Nottingham Forest’s player of the season, the Chicagoland native entered 2017 with only 11 senior caps on his resume and just one since 2013. Before this summer, his most memorable Gold Cup moment was watching Giovani Dos Santos’s iconic, backbreaking golazo sail just over his head in the 2011 final. Lichaj remained on the outside looking in, even as former coach Jurgen Klinsmann struggled to establish a reliable pecking order at right back. When Lichaj finally got his first extended chance in years to make a national team impression, he was so intent on soaking it in that he decided to bring his wife and two daughters to each and every Gold Cup venue. He’ll probably lose money this summer, but one never knows when the chance will come again.

“I think one thing we’ve benefited from in the tournament was that we had been able to look at a lot of players and see how they fit in in the big picture, and if there’s anything I get out of the Gold Cup it’s going to be that,” Arena said.

“[Lichaj] hasn’t been with the national team for a number of years. He’s a good defender, no question about it. He needs a little more experience at this level, but he fits in well with the team and [plays] a position where we need help. DeAndre Yedlin was injured for a fair amount last year … and it’s nice to know that Eric is a player we can depend on and perhaps helps us in that position.”

Arena’s job now is to give Lichaj and his family a reason to visit Santa Clara, California—the site of next week’s final. Costa Rica is a good side. Los Ticos “beat the U.S. by four goals in November,” Arena reminded the press Wednesday. The question now is whether Lichaj and his teammates have established the continuity and chemistry required to reverse that result. Lichaj knew that his goal didn’t entirely erase his mistake. A better team takes advantage, and there’s still a long way to go before he really can cut loose and celebrate.

“I’m not looking too far ahead. It would be nice to make a Word Cup team. Obviously that’s an ultimate goal. But the way I played in the first 45 … I need to sort that out,” he said.

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Central defender Omar Gonzalez, a World Cup veteran and CONCACAF club champion at Pachuca, scored Thursday’s first goal off a header from an exquisite free kick by Michael Bradley. Gonzalez helped the USA win the Gold Cup four years ago and is far more entrenched in Arena’s plans than Lichaj. He acknowledged Tuesday’s performance “was sloppy in the beginning,” but that several days of training and 90 minutes of action were only going to help this reconstituted team come together.

“So we’re expecting it to be a lot sharper for the next game,” Gonzalez said.

They'll need to be. But the USA knows that. While there hasn’t been a 90-minute effort during this tournament that suggests it is ready to win it, the fact that a player like Lichaj—who had fought for that moment for so long—still had the perspective to remain grounded and self-aware is a decent sign. He and his teammates know they’re not the finished product. Individually, Lichaj has done enough to buy himself more looks in the future. Now the focus is finding the collective chemistry and quality required to beat Costa Rica.