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USMNT shows restraint, but not progress against El Salvador

Improvement was minimal...

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-USA  at El Salvador Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With the addition of five regulars into the squad for Bruce Arena, tonight was supposed to be the night that the United States found the form they didn’t show in the group stage. Instead, the best quality for the US was not in their soccer, but in their restraint to not fall for El Salvador’s senseless antics.

There is something to say for a team that can play poorly and still win 2-0, but the performances from minute one of the Gold Cup have to be concerning. This game should have been the night with five regulars in the squad that the performances changed for the better, but instead there was more of the same. The same back four that did not impress against Martinique played tonight, and outside of a few positive moments for Justin Morrow, the group struggled massively again. Eric Lichaj’s goal masked a poor performance at right back, and another fairly poor night for the Gonzalez-Hedges pairing. Communication was poor as they couldn’t effectively deal with crosses or long balls, and made what should have been a routine night far more interesting than it needed to be.

Bruce Arena’s decisions to make many changes from game to game makes sense considering the wear and tear on the players from travel and the playing conditions, but it has come at the expense of cohesion and understanding. For most of this game, the US had trouble stringing together five to 10 yard passes which lead to opportunities on the counter which El Salvador exploited.

It wasn’t much better going forward either. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey were frustrated and while they received little respect from Drew Fischer thanks to El Salvador’s tactics, they both were clearly not at their best and didn’t look sharp. Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola both provided some brief moments of promise on the wing, but aside from one set piece and one move late in the first half, the US’ attack was not much better if at all than their defending.

Bruce Arena will be given slack from US supporters considering how Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure ended, but this has not been a banner tournament from him. The way he has managed the roster, selected his XI’s and tactics for the individual games in this Gold Cup can be argued set the team back and is in a large way responsible for their slow starts. There hasn’t been much of a chance to build cohesiveness and consistency from game to game, which has been a large reason why many players haven’t had the best of chances to stand out from the crowd.

For the US, the games they can take lightly are now over. Costa Rica despite their injuries are still Costa Rica, and they will punish the US for mistakes that Martinique, Nicaragua and El Salvador could not. The restraint the team showed collectively given the circumstances was admirable, but in many ways that’s the best the US and Bruce Arena can take away from a game like this.

Arena and his players have said the right things after these poor performances, and there has been every reason to believe changes would come as the team grows into the Gold Cup. But changes haven’t come yet, and the performances have been stagnant, uninspiring and in many ways has seen the team regress.

It’s highly unlikely the US plays like this against Costa Rica, because if they do, they’ll be eliminated in the semifinals for the second consecutive Gold Cup. It’s highly unlikely Bruce Arena goes with the same XI on Saturday, and wholesale changes to the back four might be necessary, if risking further changes to an already unsettled group. But for a tournament that he and his players have said winning is the only option for, something needs to change, from both him and his players.

Under the pressure in Philadelphia’s heat and humidity, and from the pressure of juvenile Salvadorian tactics, the US didn’t wilt badly enough to lose. But they did wilt enough to raise even more questions than answers, in a tournament than on the whole has raised more question than answers.

The US has a chance to answer some of those on Saturday. To advance, they absolutely have to.