Now into the Gold Cup elimination stage, the United States meets El Salvador on Sunday

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Having reached the business end of this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, a United States side with a freshly fortified back line and an upgraded attack will be under real pressure for the first time in the tournament Sunday afternoon.

The United States blew through the group stage with the anticipated ease (outscoring the three opponents 11-2). So Jurgen Klinsmann’s team get its first elimination-match test Sunday, facing El Salvador at an M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore that will be packed and steamy.

It will also almost certainly be sharply divided in fan support; the United States will heavily favored, but El Salvador is likely to be heavy with fan support.

Kickoff on Fox and Univision is 3:30 p.m.

“It doesn’t matter if we have now eight in a row or five or two or whatever,” Klinsmann said Saturday. “In order to win this tournament we have to win the next three games. So we are not looking at any statistics. We know we have a difficult match here tomorrow and we are ready for it. For us, the Gold Cup is only successful if we win it.”

If the 11 U.S. goals in three matches look impressive, consider that 10 came against decidedly overmatched Belize and Cuba. While it was surely “mission accomplished,” the United States had a significantly tougher time operating against Costa Rica.

Besides, it was the “2” in that 11-2 goal difference that seemed more important as Klinsmann made four allowable changes between the highly forgiving group stage at the quarterfinals.

(MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t appear pleased with U.S. center back depth)

Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, the top two center backs in Klinsmann current player pool were added to the Gold Cup roster (although Gonzalez will not join the team until Wednesday’s semifinals in Dallas, assuming safe U.S. arrival.)

Klinsmann also added forwards Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson. Neither will be the “featured” attacker, however. The bulk of attention will fall on Landon Donovan, who is having a swell time of things in getting back with the national team – never mind that it’s a “B” team version, set so intentionally to get some of the front-line men some rest ahead of their European seasons.

Donovan has two goals and two assists in the tournament, including a picture perfect pass across the field to Brek Shea to create Tuesday’s late breakthrough against Costa Rica. Getting the country’s all-time leading scorer and set-up man folded back into the program and regaining the coach’s trust in him was probably the second most important objective in this semi-annual tournament (after winning it, naturally). To hear Klinsmann talk, it sounds like everything is moving in a great direction.

“His leadership in that moment [late Tuesday] is very important to the team, and he understands that moment,” Klinsmann said. “He’s a player that understands the importance of certain games.”

History suggests the odds are with the United States, which has lost just once in the Gold Cup quarters, that all the way back in 2000.

Other numbers suggest good fortune, too. For instance, the United States is 15-1-5 against El Salvador all-time. The hosts Sunday have faced the small Central American nation four times in the Gold Cup and won all four (1996, 2002, 2003, 2007) by shutout.

What’s more, Tuesday’s 1-0 victory against Costa Rica ran the program’s all-time best winning streak to eight consecutive wins.

None of that will matter, however, if the United States can’t find a way past El Salvador, which sneaked into the quarters after a win, a loss and a draw in group play. It took a Sacha Kljestan stoppage time goal for the United States to find a win last time the teams met, in Tampa in early 2010.

“Our expectation is that they’ll do what every other team has [in the tournament],” Donovan said. “They will defend with everything they have and then try to catch us on perhaps a counter or a set piece or something like that.”

Expect to see Besler and probably Johnson. Assuming all goes well, Besler and Gonzalez would probably see out the tournament as the country’s top central defensive pairing.

“For us it’s a chance to bring in some more experienced guys, so guys that are a little bit fresher, and I think it will help us,” Donovan said.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

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.