U.S. should coast into quarterfinals
The U.S. actually was just getting warmed up in winning twice in less than a 48-hour period, the start of an odyssey which extends across the country and will continue into South America with the Copa America at the end of June. Most of the starters from the opening win over Guatemala on June 6 were rested in Game 2 against Trinidad & Tobago on June 9, so they should be fresh for El Salvador. The U.S. national team plays El Salvador Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Pablo Mastroeni (and Oguchi Onyewu) return from suspension. The only questionable U.S. player is Eddie Johnson, who performed as a substitute in the first two games.
El Salvador has seldom presented problems for the U.S., especially in Foxborough. The U.S. has a 14-1-4 all-time record and is 10-0-2 in qualifiers and tournament matches there. El Salvador has an enthusiastic, but relatively small, fan base in New England, but is 1-5-0 in Foxborough since 1997.
The U.S. is 20-0-1 in Gold Cup group play since 1991 and the U.S. should have few difficulties this time around, especially since the players are far from jaded, many of them relatively new to international play and realizing they have a lot to prove.
Coach Bob Bradley likely will return to the lineup, with slight alterations, which produced a 1-0 win over Guatemala The U.S. went with a 4-4-2 alignment against the Chapines, but it was effectively a 4-5-1, with Taylor Twellman the target man and Clint Dempsey roaming free between midfield and forward. The Twellman-Dempsey pairing paid off, as they combined for the goal. But Bradley expected a slugfest and thought Twellman could make the most out a game that would have little flow with his persistence and scoring instincts.
El Salvador will not be as blatantly physical as Guatemala was, and the Guanacos also will be more likely to play an open game. So, Bradley could switch to a true 4-4-2, which could give Brian Ching a start ahead of Twellman at forward. The Ching-Landon Donovan chemistry goes back to their San Jose Earthquakes days. Twellman's favorite partners are Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston, but he has seldom been on the field with them for the U.S.; and, Ralston went the distance against T&T, so he probably will be rested in this game.
Johnson also factors into the equation: He is the hottest scorer among U.S. players, and he is a Donovan favorite.
The U.S. is usually able to dominate Central American foes through physicality and speed, and those should be defining factors against an El Salvador team which depends a little too much on former MLSers Ronald Cerritos and Eliseo Quintanilla, who is suspended for this game. Another major difference between the U.S. and CONCACAF foes is goalkeeping, and Tim Howard is a more dominating presence than El Salvador's Juan Jose Gomez or his possible replacement, Dagoberto Portillo.
The other distinguishing factor in favor of the U.S. is organization. Labor issues long have been settled, the team is playing at home, and the players are focused. This reflects in composed performances. The players have developed confidence and poise, the Europe-based performers leading the way.
Benny Feilhaber will continue getting his chance to direct the midfield, with Michael Bradley or Mastroeni in support. Carlos Bocanegra has taken on the leadership role as captain, and will pair with Onyewu in central defense. Jonathan Bornstein and Frankie Hejduk provide mobility as outside backs. And DaMarcus Beasley, Dempsey and Donovan are mostly allowed to run free.
Bradley has been successful tactically since taking over as U.S. coach, the only blip on his screen a 0-0 tie with Guatemala in Frisco, Texas, in March. Twellman fell ill before that match, and did not play. But Bradley learned from the result and knew what the U.S. had to do against a revived and purposeful Guatemala team in the Gold Cup.
But the first round of the Gold Cup is strictly a warmup act. Things start getting serious in the quarterfinals, and that will be the first of Bradley's true tests.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.