PHILADELPHIA – Just call it “50 Shades of Soccer.” Wednesday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal between the U.S. and El Salvador had just about everything. There was biting, nipple twisting, oh, and a couple of U.S. goals in a 2-0 win for the home side.
Yep, just another night in CONCACAF.
Jozy Altidore was the recipient of most of the unwanted advances, including a bite from El Salvador defender Henry Romero in the 59th minute. Romero later twisted Altidore’s nipple and both actions had the effect of incapacitating the U.S. forward for a few seconds.
To cap off the evening, U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez appeared to be bitten by Salvadoran midfielder Darwin Ceren late in the second half. Referee Drew Fischer managed to miss all of the abovementioned incidents.
“When the guy bit me I was a bit shocked,” said Gonzalez, who scored the first U.S. goal. “But you just have to move on as quick as possible and look toward the next play.”
About the only thing that was lacking from the match was a red card or two. Altidore said he had never been bitten before, at least not without his permission.
“My girl is mad at me,” he said. “She’s mad at me, she’s mad at Romero. She’s like ‘Only I can bite you, only I can grab your nipples.'”
Goalkeeper Tim Howard kept with the theme, saying: “You can’t go around biting people. That’s crazy. [Nipple twisting], that should be allowed, but the biting, no good.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Arena certainly had the look of a man who wished he had been blindfolded for the match. The U.S. looked below par in just about every facet of the game.
“I thought we had a difficult time tonight,” said the manager. “Our timing wasn’t good, we didn’t well with the physicality. The game had no rhythm with all the fouls, and players falling on the ground. But we weren’t good on top of it. It took us 30 minutes to play a little bit. Then we got a little bit more assertive, and took up good positions on the field, and capitalized on a couple of their mistakes. But it was just a sloppy game overall.”
The American defense never looked fully convincing, though it managed to earn the shutout and was responsible for scoring both goals, with Eric Lichaj netting the second. As much as the approach work was effective during the game, the Americans’ attack seemed to run aground whenever it got within striking distance of the opposition penalty area. It made for a long night for Altidore and strike partner Clint Dempsey, who struggled to get touches on the ball.
“We’ve got to get them better service,” said Howard of the two forwards. “We gave them hospital balls the whole first half. Balls were behind them, allowing the Salvadoran team to come up, smash ’em and kick ’em. It just has to be better, cleaner all around.”
One key to achieving that aim lies with Darlington Nagbe, who played centrally with Michael Bradley. As is his habit, Nagbe took good care of the ball, but Arena noted that the U.S. midfielder needed to be “more selfish,” an observation that has often been made of the gifted Portland playmaker.
“We encouraged him as the first half went on, we wanted him to run more with the ball, to really just penetrate with the ball because he was getting by players and then releasing the ball too early,” said Arena. “Once he got at them a little bit more, he got dangerous and helped our team in the attack.”
The U.S. now faces Costa Rica in Saturday’s semifinal in Arlington, Texas. The Ticos have been beset a bit by injuries and four players, including striker Joel Campbell and midfielder Cristian Gamboa, have been replaced on the roster.
But even though the squad is different, the memory lingers of the U.S. getting hammered by Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying late last year and there is universal recognition that a start similar to what took place against El Salvador will be more damaging.
“We’ve got to be better putting our stamp on these games,” said Altidore. “Obviously, we won [this] game, we’re happy with it, but these are good exercises for us to now grow as a team and learn to dominate these games better.”
The good news is that Costa Rica are not likely to resort to the kind of unsettling antics that were on display against El Salvador. Then again, you never know what craziness might ensue.
“CONCACAF never ceases to amaze me,” said Altidore. “It is what it is. I shouldn’t be saying, ‘These things happen,’ but they do.”
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.