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USMNT 2, El Salvador 0: The SBI Breakdown

Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Just when you think the CONCACAF Gold Cup couldn’t get any weirder, North America’s premier tournament unleashes an experience like Wednesday night’s.

Wednesday’s clash between the U.S. Men’s National Team and El Salvador had some of everything. Pretty goals? Sure. Defensive lapses? You bet. Nipple twists and biting? But of course! It was a stunning match in a tournament famous for absolute craziness. In the Gold Cup, hijinks are commonplace, but you never can fully predict just how far they’ll come.

In between all of the body pinching and gnawing, there was some soccer played and, while it wasn’t pretty, it did offer a glimpse into this current USMNT group. Playing with a majority of the team’s stars for the first time, the USMNT offered good and bad, composed and calamitous.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the biggest takeaways from the USMNT’s 2-0 win.


At the international level, there’s little room for off moments. On Wednesday, the USMNT had an off half, and they weren’t made to pay for it.

They’re fortunate it was only El Salvador and they’re fortunate players like Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj stepped up with much-needed goals. They were fortunate not to be down 1-0 or 2-0 early. They were fortunate to survive.

Those fortunes and that luck won’t continue. Costa Rica won’t let you sleepwalk your way through 30 minutes. Mexico won’t allow hiccups like Lichaj’s errant backpass or Justin Morrow’s whiff of a header. The margin for error is shrinking rapidly as the USMNT heads to the semifinal round.

The good news? This group is a veteran group. Players like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey won’t let mistakes and missteps repeat, and they’d better not if the USMNT wants to win a Gold Cup.


“Just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this…and totally redeem yourself!”

Eric Lichaj’s night could have turned into it’s own Dumb and Dumber moment. His backpass to Tim Howard? Incredibly dumb, and it almost cost his team a goal. For the game’s first 30 or so minutes. Lichaj made dumb mistake after dumb mistake, nearly costing his team.

He never quite evolved into dumber territory, though. Rather, he stepped up out of the mess and redeemed himself with a vital insurance goal. Lichaj’s finish couldn’t have come at a better time, for the player or the team, as Lichaj and the USMNT entered the halftime break with an exhale.

Now, did Lichaj’s performance damage his standing? Probably. There were too many defensive issues to be masked by one goal. There were too many mental blunders to overcome with one driven shot.

However, Lichaj’s finish restored some measure of hope that he can be an answer at fullback, one the USMNT still very much needs one year from a World Cup.


One of  the USMNT’s centerbacks stepped up with a Man of the Match-worthy performance. The other? Not so much.

Omar Gonzalez was almost certainly the USMNT’s best player on the field on Wednesday. His headed goal was certainly his best moment, but Gonzalez was once again the steadiest member of the USMNT backline. Throughout the tournament, Gonzalez has shown poise, leadership and calm while anchoring the defense, moving ever closer to all but locking up a World Cup spot.

His partner, Matt Hedges, wasn’t as composed. After a rough outing against Martinique, Hedges was also less than convincing against El Salvador. He lost his man several times. His passing was far from crisp. He got better as he went along, certainly, but he looked like he was a step or two behind many of the El Salvador attackers for large stretches.

With so many centerbacks rising up the chart, Hedges can’t afford to not step up and standout. He’s in a real battle for that fourth centerback spot and with players like Matt Besler, Matt Miazga, Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream all in the mix, there’s a real race to claim a coveted World Cup spot.


The USMNT’s big breakthrough came via a set piece, but several of the team’s biggest missteps also came from dead-ball situations.

On one end, Michael Bradley’s pinpoint delivery to Omar Gonzalez should serve as the game’s big highlight. The free kick was immaculate. It was perfectly-hit and perfectly-placed, leaving Gonzalez with little to do but put it on frame. Credit to Bradley because wow. That’s all there is to say.

Bradley’s set pieces also, somehow, proved to be the most difficult for the USMNT to defend. El Salvador regularly broke free on USMNT corner kicks, and Eric Lichaj and Justin Morrow struggled to defend in those situations. It’s a pretty basic concept, one practiced by each and every team out there, but, on the day, the two fullbacks didn’t hold up nor contain the El Salvador defense.

Set pieces are, and always have been, a vital part of the USMNT game. Wednesday showed plenty of the good and the bad, but they’ll need more of the former against the region’s trickier teams.


Eventually, you have to see it all, right? Only so many things can happen between those white lines. The game’s been around so long, making it highly unlikely anything ever happens for the first time.

It’s not often you hear the word “nipple” in a press conference. It’s not often you see not one, but two, alleged bites. But it is CONCACAF, after all.

In a region defined by the absurd and unconventional, Wednesday’s match was even wacky by CONCACAF standards. Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez were both bitten. Altidore, on the very same sequence, had his nipple pinched. The sentences you just read are somehow describing events in a soccer game.

CONCACAF is still CONCACAF. Will there be punishments? One would hope. Somehow, there’s plenty of precedent on the whole biting thing, and the powers will certainly be taking a look in the coming days.

These games never cease to amaze as they seemingly get more ridiculous each and every year.


  1. I can’t believe all of the criticism for Bradley. Everyone that is being critical of him should look at Dempsey. Other then his turn and assist to Lichaj he was invisible all night. I will say it again. Dempsey was invisible. It felt like we were playing 10 v 11. You all want Bradley to play the ball forward but sometimes keeping possession is more important, plus the guys off the ball need to move to get open. The criticism should really be for the guys that had shockers or didn’t show. If Dempsey is supposed to be one of the veterans and leaders why did he have the least touches? Are you saying the El Salvador defense marked him out of the game? Hedges was awful. Morrow was awful. Lichaj has a rough beginning to the game but he was not beat as often as Morrow and Hedges. For all of the effort that Arriola put in what did he actually do? Look at the other players, not Bradley. Bradley was one of the best players on the field. And it you want any respect please don’t suggest players that aren’t even full time starters at their clubs. Yes Tyler Adams is a gifted player and Hyndman may develop but these players and others are not nearly ready for the international game.

  2. I’ve gone over it again and again in my head and I think our biggest problem is that we need two forwards to be effective but doing that means we lose the midfield battle: 4-4-2 means two Fs on the field but only Bradley as a lone DM = lost midfield, and 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 allows a No. 8 to partner with Bradley but Altidore (or Wood, or whomever) is on an island up top

    That’s why I’m convinced we need to go to a 3-5-2. CB is our deepest position and FB is our weakest. We’ve played the 3-5-2 enough now — and in some important matches — to make it the go-to. For the rest of this Gold Cup:

    ———- Altidore ——— Dempsey————-
    Villafana — Acosta — Nagbe — MB90 — Arriola
    ———– Besler —- Omar — Mizga ———
    ——————- Howard ————————–

    It plays to our strengths and gives us so many options off the bench. With the full-strength team you start Wood, Pulisic, Yedlin, Brooks, and Cameron in their natural positions and have Deuce, Bedoya, Arriola, etc. come off the bench. One year out from Russia, with 7 competitive matches left, is the time to settle a formation.

      • Did not mean to leave FJ out. I had him in my post in the list of first team starters (replacing Villafana) but accidentally deleted him.

        Hyndman, McKennie, and other similar “up and comers” are talented and exciting, but not ready. They’re not better than their MLS counterparts in the national team pool. At least not yet.

        And if you’re suggesting that certain players were established under the old regime and that Arena is just dropping them, sorry, but the evidence doesn’t support that.

      • Mckennie’s highest level of experience to date is U19 plus a few minutes in the final week of the Bundesliga in a match where neither side had much to play for. Hyndman looked average in his 25 appearances in the Championship and only starred when loaned to the Scotish Premier League, a league that was dropped to the 27th best in Europe after last season. Neither have proven on the pitch they are better than Bradley, but do have time to prove that this season if they become regulars for Schalke and Bournemouth.

    • You have to take into account the opposition. While that might work with the “little” teams, it probably won’t cut it with Costa Rica or Mexico. We’re in some luck with CR because Joel Campbell was sent back, but I fear Bryan Ruiz would have a field day with only 3 defensive backs and even a diminished Mexican team would shred that formation.

      • Gary, if the USMNT go three or five in the back and the Tico’s do the same I’m afraid both teams will just be staring at the ball at midfield. Waiting to absorb each other’s attack and looking to counter on a mistake.

  3. We need Jermaine Jones. Missed some of that nasty. Not to mention he is a better player than MB90 when fully healthy.

    • Yeah! And we need Marcelo Balboa back too. And Kasey Keller.

      The USMNT, Geriatric All Stars version!

      I agree we need more nasty, and MB needs to go (not 90, to the bench), but JJ ain’t the answer.

    • JJ would have been an epic disaster. I love his game but his self control is not exactly legendary. This was an incredibly nasty game, and we were not exactly saints. We had our fair share of cheap shots (including an arm stomp and a nut shut)
      ES was aiming for a red card to get back in the game, and he is the personality to give it to them.

  4. As bad as the back line has been against these teams I can imagine arena going back to how they played Mexico with a 5 man back line against Costa Rica. I know some will say it was a 3 man backline but to keep it at 3 they will have to actually have some possession.

  5. How is Bradley universally praised for passing backwards or sideways and delivering one nice set piece (which he doesn’t take with the full team anymore as he finally got yanked after years of goal-scoring corner attempts that never worked)?

    This team looked very poor. Get Miazga in there for one of the gawd-awful CBs asap. Get someone in for Jozy who can score (he’s scoreless in 9 straight with the nats I read?). Sit MB for Acosta, let him take his lumps so he can at least develop.

    Thankfully half of the Costa Rica team got sent home injured. Pretty sure we’d get spanked.

    • Thats Bradley’s role in the team right now. Anchor the midfield and recycle possession. He’s one of the very few players who actually did their job last night.

      • Sorry, but an unquestioned starter and captain needs more than a bit of D and backpasses. He’s basically Backpass Beasley in a midfielder role. He does nothing for this team. At his peak, he was providing excellent balls forward to advanced positions, scoring a bit himself (yes, goal against Mex was tremendous, but that was one), completely controlling the game.

        This type of role does not lend itself to automatic starter. It lends itself to squad player on the field depending on matchups.

        We need to move off Howard/Bradley and to a lesser extent Jozy/Dempsey. Once everyone gets this, we can move forward as a better team.

      • Final note I forgot – He’s basically immune from criticism because his supporters effectively have given him ZERO responsibility. Defenders let in goals? Criticism. Forwards don’t score? Criticism. Attacking mids don’t create/score? Criticism.

        Bradley’s current role? Basically do nothing, because nothing is your fault.

      • I’m not sure Bradley is being praised for his performance last night though. For better or worse it seems like his role has been simplified.
        People complained when Bradley was overplaying, sending countless balls over the top and losing possession in dangerous areas during Klinsmann’s reign. I’ll take our current Bradley over that one any day.
        I agree we should expect more from him and Dempsey. Those are the guys we are supposed to be turning to for answers when the rest of the team is struggling. Dempsey will still have a very important role in the team next summer. The question is if its starting or from the bench. Last night did not inspire much faith that he can be relied on as a starter for the wc. He was not near active and involved enough.
        Bradley is much harder to replace though. First off he is playing fine. As many have noted, we don’t have a clear replacement there. You keep saying Acosta, but his inconsistency has proven he is not ready just yet.
        What we need to figure out is how we are lining up regularly. Is the 5 man back line a tactic we are going to use more often? I think it suits us but we have only seen it once. Last night looked more like a 4-4-1-1.

      • I keep saying Acosta because he’s there. Bradley (or any of the new guys) should not have been brought in in the first place. Let Acosta sink or swim. By most accounts he’s a better MLS player than MB at this stage, so play him with the Nats. I can’t stand this reliance on these old guy like they are still excellent players. No, they are just old (as you have correctly pointed out with Demps, though at least Demps created a goal himself vs MBs backpassing.)

        I have also mentioned Williams, McKennie (sp?), and Hyndman. Hell, I’ll even throw in Tyler Adams. This isn’t even mentioning utilizing our better current depth at CB and rotating Cameron to Bradley’s role, which is my preference to be honest.

        I appreciate your comments, but you mention “Bradley’s role is simplified”, and then say he’s much harder to replace. If his role is to play square balls, back passes, and defend a bit, that is not hard to replace. It’s like people simultaneously understand his limited skill/responsibility at this point, but also pretend he’s still the player he was 5 years ago.

      • I’m with you that Acosta should be playing extended minutes. We need to know what we have there and this is as good a chance as any to test him. I’ll be very disappointed if he isn’t starting on Saturday.
        Bradley isn’t the player he was 5 years ago, but I’m not as down on him as you are. Simplified role does not necessarily mean simple role.I think you are selling him short, and I still think he is our best option. We’ve got bigger fish to fry with this team. My personal preference would be a 3 man central midfield that suits the team much better as a whole.
        Mckennie has 10 professional minutes under his belt? Dude just isn’t ready for this yet. Williams burned hot and cold under Klinsmann. He and Hyndmann should both get an opportunity if they’re playing regularly this fall. Mentions of Mckennie and Adams show you’re being pretty irrational with the CM situation. Playing either is just throwing sh*t at the wall and hoping.

      • Apparently missed (or intentionally overlooked) my ideal option of moving Cameron up.

        Brooks and besler, or Brooks or miazga, or even gonzo, with Cameron playing the impossibly difficult MB role, is the best option for the team. Won’t happen bc EXPERIENCE, but don’t ignore it just so you can ridicule less feasible options.

        Gonna be real awkward if one of these young guys starts pulling mins in a top league and still can’t get a sniff while MB continues to play the ball sideways.

      • swy19. You say that Acosta has already done more than Bradley did at his age. Well, you can look it up. Acosta will turn 22 in a couple of days. When Bradley was 21, he signed a multi-year deal with Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Bundesliga after a very successful season in Holland (as I remember he scored almost 20 goals for Herenveen). The idea that some young kid with little experience can come in and shine on the international level is a pipe dream. It shows that you have little experience in following the international game. For every Pulisic, there are 10 or 20 guys who are good youth internationals who never go anywhere.

      • Bradley is so far from the team’s biggest problem though. I do not think he’s some sort of world beater, but the team is better with him on the field. Cameron at DM? Fine, then Bradley still plays the other CM role…. You’re presuming a whole lot with Hyndman, Williams and Mckennie. If they nail down regular roles(maybe 1 of them will) they will get a shot. Until them its useless to speculate.
        Our biggest need is a reliable goalscorer. Dempsey isn’t getting any younger and Pulisic may not be ready to take over that role. Jozy and Wood aren’t prolific. I fear we will be a toothless team next summer.

    • Bradley actually did a decent job last night which is saying a lot compared to many other players out there last night. With little understanding and/or direction on how to move without the ball from the rest of MF, the back or sideways pass was often the answer. It’s the same reason Nagbe over dribbles at times, there is just no one getting open to play the ball to. CONCACAF has figured the US out, no longer do these teams put 9 guys behind the ball and hope that the American athleticism won’t eventually break them. Now teams just high press the backline and DM and look to capitalize on a mistake. To answer your question Bradley is the best CM we have available and it’s not even that close. I’m a big fan of Acosta, but he showed he wasn’t ready to be the main man in CM last week at least not in a 4 man midfield.

      • I basically agree. Of all the guys trotted out to play somewhere in the midfield, even Dempsey, only Bradley seemed more or less immune to coughing up the ball when faced with a bit of pressure. Every other US midfielder (and 3 of the 4 backs) struggled whenever they were faced with hard pressure. Bradley may have passed backward, but at least, he did not gift the ball to El Salvador like most of his teammates did.

        You do not have to re-watch much of the game to find instances where defensive pressure caused a US player to cough up the ball unnecessarily and often in very bad spots.

      • Yes, i agree the US was awful last night in general (and in all group games as well). I disagree that there was any pressure on MB. Had all sorts of time in the middle of the park and drops it back nearly every time.

        Acosta needs to just play more, because at least he has that quality moving the ball forward. I haven’t been terribly impressed yet, but at least he can grow into it more. Bradley now (at this age and ability) offers us zero going forward, and gets praised for it.

        Also agree that there are not perfect replacements now. But if DWilliams gets time in PL, if Hyndman can get some minutes, if McKinnie gets minutes to start the season, all three should be playing over MB at this point in his career.

      • Meh, one of them likely works out.

        The fact MB didn’t lose the ball, despite passing backwards, is a good thing? All the other guys lose the ball trying to, oh I dunno, move the ball fowards to score goals. I feel like I’m at 1st and 1st street, the nexus of the universe, listening to these excuses!

    • Swy19, of all the youth you mention the only player I see ready to contribute at the international level is Cameron Carter Vickers. If he starts to get some first team starts for Tottenham and proves himself as an EPL starter Arean will have some options with Cameron moving to defensive midfield.
      Week in and week out CCR sees better competition in practice then most of the right footed defenders in the player pool. Plus, physically he is already built for playing with the grown ups!

  6. Although Villafana and Zusi were hardly shining stars in past matches, it looks like the best chance to win the next game and, hopefully, the one after that, will come with a back line of Villafana, Besler, Gonzalez and Zusi from left to right. Let’s hope we have Brooks, Cameron and Yedlin for our next qualifiers, or it could get ugly.

    • I agree villafana, besler, omar and zusi will likely be the back 4 Saturday.
      I am more interested to see what we do in front of them. Our midfield has not been able to link up with the strikers all tournament. I don’t see an obvious solution on the roster to solve this problem either. I think we will rely on a very similar lineup and hope they just play better.

  7. Eric Lichaj was paid off by the Salvadorian FA before the game which led to that awful pass. Then, at halftime, Sunil Gulati made Lichaj a better offer which unsurprisingly led to a goal. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that.


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