Donovan Key as USA Advance
By Alex Fairchild
On February 6, it would be impossible to think that the United States of America would pull off nine straight wins any time soon. That day, they struggled away to a feisty Honduran side who handed them a 2-1 loss. A disappointing bit of play against Belgium saw them slip even further down the scale. But Jozy Altidore would score off a cross from Graham Zusi in the team's historic victory over Germany and the team has not looked back.
Thirty-one goals have been scored over the course of the near two month run. In the whole of 2012, the Stars and Stripes only put 23 goals by opposing keepers.
While this has been done against weak opposition, it was done by two different teams. The "A" team played in World Cup Qualifying matches and this supposed "B" team has gone all out in Gold Cup play.
A 4-2-3-1 was Klinsmann's "go to" in the qualifiers, though he has made the switch to a far less conventional 4-1-3-2. Against Costa Rica, the absence of Kyle Beckerman saw Stuart Holden slide into a more attacking role. With the Real Salt Lake man back in the lineup Sunday, it was business as usual for this XI. Matt Besler replaced Michael Orozco Fiscal at center back, pairing with tournament mainstay Clarence Goodson. Even though Klinsmann set his team out in a 4-2-3-1, Mix Diskerud pushed forward after 5 minutes while Beckerman was left to sit in between El Salvador's two front men. The visitor's 4-4-2 was as rigid as they come.
Within moments both American full backs got forward. DaMarcus Beasley got down the left first. He was followed by Michael Parkhurst, who played on the right, by the time a quarter of an hour had gone. In the past, the Americans have missed that extra dynamic which is so important to the modern game. At the highest level, most teams have fierce attacking options from that position, as was seen in the Confederations Cup. Marcelo and Dani Alves were difference makers for Brazil. It was the pressure of those two that kept Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa at bay in the final.
While Parkhurst and Beasley are not quite up to par with the Brazilian duo, they have been very effective. The latter more so, as he marauded forward in the qualifiers, with Klinsmann swapping Fabian Johnson in for him, depending on suspensions and opposition. Jose Fernando Torres fits into the attacking three midfield, as he can play in central positions down the left to create space for the on-running back. Beasley overlapped him several times on the night. Joe Corona had to do the same whenever Parkhurst came steaming ahead.
The first American goal did not need attacking full backs, as it came through a well thought out set play that knocked El Salvador of its guard. A short corner pulled the defense's line forward and a chip from Parkhurst found Donovan over the top, making the blues track back. Having lost their men, a driven ball from the American vet found Clarence Goodson in point-blank range for an easy half-volley just 21 minutes into the game.
After the opener, Mix Diskerud got forward, while Beckerman continued to drop back in front of the US's four man rearguard.
Joe Corona, who has spent most his Gold Cup playing on the flanks, tucked in today and it paid dividends for Klinsmann. A streak down the left center saw Donovan pass two defenders before finding Chris Wondolowski. The striker nudged the ball to Corona, who took a deft touch to fool a sliding defender. Corona slid the ball into the bottom left of goal to make it 2-0.
The right midfielder gravitated to the middle for the rest of the night. However, when he did find himself outside he whipped in some gorgeous balls into the box.
An excellent effort from Rodolfo Zelaya led to the 25 year-old forward halving the home team's lead from the spot. Zelaya punished poor defending from the Americans, who allowed him to cut in from the right. Not a body was put on the attacker, who beat three defenders, until Beasley bodied Zelaya leading to an uncontroversial decision.
One goal behind at the break and it was time for the underdogs to make a change. It was a dramatic one from manager Agustin Castillo, who made a halftime substitution for each goal his boys allowed. On a "go big or go home" occasion, Kevin Santamaria and Rafael Edgardo Burgos entered to pressure the US. The tactical shift saw Burgos come to the middle, breaking up the American rhythm. In the first half, it was easy for Besler and Goodson to find Beckerman in the middle, but with Burgos filling in the hole left by two strikers, it was time for the backs to get creative. Torres began to drop to the middle and so did Corona. Meanwhile, Beasley slid up further down his flank where he was found a few times by a central Torres.
Early attacks from El Salvador saw them look a threat, but Eddie Johnson saw to that upon his substitution on 60 minutes. He was still jogging onto the pitch when a Landon Donovan cross found his bleached head. It was lazy marking from El Salvador, who failed to pick him up on his way into the match. Johnson's head, which has lightning bolt etched in, punished the opposition just one touch and 15 seconds into his appearance.
The lead was restored and the Americans settled into a 4-4-2. Wondolowski was replaced by Johnson and Mix Diskerud dropped alongside Beckerman. This change became even more apparent with the arrival of Brek Shea. The Stoke City attacker made the USA look a 4-2-2-2 at times, as the two wingers were distinctly positioned above the holding midfielders.
After coming on, Johnson was most impressive. He wandered onto the wings a few times and his energy was unparalleled. The United States defense hoofed long balls to the forward line all night, but Nick Rimando's canon of a boot 12 minutes from time found Johnson's head. The skull of the Sounders forward was the difference once again, as Donovan ran onto Johnson's flick. Donovan found his way around the keeper with ease before slotting the ball home for the fourth American goal.
His 83rd minute cross to Diskerud made it five.
In this Gold Cup quarterfinal, Donovan was in on all the American goals - directly assisting on three, scoring one, and doing the grunt work to setup the other. It was another sensational night for the No. 10 who has been superb after coming off his sabbatical. In addition, three years ago tomorrow will mark his famous World Cup strike against Algeria.
With Donovan back in top form, the USA will certainly need him at his best in their upcoming semifinal. Appropriately, he will lead his team out against Honduras - who stand between the men in hoops and a 10th straight victory, as well as a trip to the Gold Cup Final.