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.
“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.
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.