Landon Donovan’s goal, three assists lead United States past El Salvador

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It was the kind of start you want to see from the U.S. Men’s National Team against CONCACAF’s middle-of-the road opposition: Kick off; assume control; jump in front; and cruise. Though a late second half hiccup allowed El Salvador to score from the spot, keeping the match competitive at halftime, three second half goals saw the United States cruise into Gold Cup semifinals, their 5-1 win setting up a match against the winner of tonight’s Honduras-Costa Rica match quarterfinal.

Dictating play from the opening whistle, the U.S. went up in the 21st minute through Clarence Goodson, the defender converting on play from a short corner. Eight minutes later, Joe Corona finished from the top of the penalty area, a goal that was pulled back in the 38rd minute by Rodolfo Zelaya’s penalty kick. On the hour, however, Eddie Johnson, who had been on for 14 seconds, headed home a Landon Donovan corner, restoring the U.S.’s two-goal margin. In the 78th minute, Johnson returned the favor, flicking Donovan behind the defense for the game’s fifth goal, while Mikkel Diskerud’s closer gave the U.S. their final margin or victory.

As much as the U.S. dominance will be one of the game’s takeaways, so will Landon Donovan’s breakout. The team’s all-time leading scorer added to his record while adding three assists. On the only goal that kept his name off the scoresheet, Donovan played the crucial part in setting up the Corona tally. Though the opposition wasn’t elite, Donovan’s performance was, providing U.S. fans proof their biggest star still has some game-breaking performances in the tank.

The match’s first 20 minutes saw the U.S. dominate possession, favoring their right side as a packed in El Salvador absorbed pressure, relying on their counter attack. But with crosses from Michael Parkhurst and Joe Corona, the U.S. were able to force a number of corner kicks, with one finally paying off in the 21st minute.

(MORE: U.S. Man of the Match … Landon Donovan)

That’s when a short ball from Jose Torres to Donovan was played back to Parkhurst, whose chip over an advancing defense played Donovan toward the byline. Before the ball rolled into touch, Donovan cut a ball back across the penalty area, finding an unmarked Goodson at the edge of  the six for an easy goal.

Eight minutes later, Donovan again played a key part in the goal. Cutting in from the left, the U.S. attacker carried the ball to the edge of the penalty area, drawing the defense before playing across to Chris Wondolowski. The San Jose captain passed to the top of the penalty area for Corona, who found a lane through the sprawling Salvadoran defense to fire the U.S.’s second score into the left of goal.

Before halftime, however, Zelaya made his impact felt, drawing a penalty from U.S. captain DaMarcus Beasley after the left back blocked the attacker’s path to a ball rolling in the right of the penalty area. Zelaya’s chip into the middle of goal beat Nick Rimando, restoring  Salvadoran hope just before intermission.

That hope disappeared in the 60th minute,  seconds after Seattle’s Eddie Johnson checked in for Wondolowski. Allowed to run onto a Donovan corner, Johnson leapt at the edge of the six and finished into the upper-left of goal, restoring the U.S.’s two-goal margin.

After the match seemed settled, the U.S. began piling on, with Johnson’s flick of a ball from midfield putting Donovan behind a high El Salvador line. Bursting past the helpless defense, Donovan eventually sidestepped goalkeeper Dagoberto Portillo, burying his 54th international goal.

With the Salvadorans well-beaten, the U.S. added their fifth, with Donovan providing his third assist of the match on a short-range header from Diskerud.  Steering the U.S. to a four-goal win, Donovan had completed his best performance of the Jurgen Klinsmann era.

Ultimately, the final did both teams justice. El Salvador provided some first half sparks but failed to threaten the U.S., with their demoralized play over the match’s final 10 minutes potentially deserving a few more goals allowed.

For Klinsmann’s team, it was the type of control and dominance you’d expect from a team that’s arguably the best in the region. And with Donovan still capable of outbursts like today’s, that team may be ready to hit another gear.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.