Landon Donovan called it “Groundhog Day” after Tuesday night's win over Costa Rica in Connecticut: the familiar sight of a CONCACAF opponent bunkered in against the US national team, seeking to grind out a low-scoring (or no-scoring) result off the region's recently revitalized giants.
If there was a time in the recent past when the United States' smaller local rivals felt confident standing toe-to-toe with the Yanks, that moment seems to have passed.
“They just all want to play defense for 90 minutes,” said Donovan after the USMNT's 1-0 victory, where they unsuccessfully probed Los Ticos' cautious 5-4-1 formation for 82 minutes before snatching a winner on a post corner-kick counterattack.
“Costa Rica's a lot better at it than Belize and Cuba are. So it was a little peculiar considering they had to win the game to win the group. It was strange that they wanted to play that way. I think it shows how they feel about us.”
And if Central America's strongest, most accomplished nation adopts that respectful course of action, there's little doubt in US minds that they'll face a similar gambit from El Salvador, even bigger underdogs, in the Gold Cup quarterfinal round at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday (4 pm ET, FOX, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
“We understand in this region, in this tournament, that's what it's going to look like,” said Donovan. “It's going to look like that Sunday against El Salvador, and we have to keep going, keep getting better at it so that when we face this, we're able to do it.”
Long accustomed to their own plucky, up-and-comer mentality, US teams of previous generations have at times struggled to seize and maintain control of matches against small-fry opponents where patience, possession and precision is required. But the veterans on the current squad see greater technical ability and tactical savvy – and allied with a more forward-leaning mindset, it all adds up to greater comfort with the Goliath role.
“We're developing better players. Players are in environments where they have to be better on the ball,” said Donovan. “In the past we couldn't put together three games where we consistently picked apart teams like that. And now we're able to do it.”
Donovan's longtime teammate and friend DaMarcus Beasley made a similar case on Tuesday.
“Even tonight, we only scored one goal, but we were on top of them, we were always trying to fight for goal, we were always trying to push the play, and that's what we need from this team.” said the USA's Gold Cup captain. “This team is hungry, we want to win. We want to win this championship.”
A small, developing nation of just 6.2 million residents, El Salvador can look to a few equalizing factors in Baltimore. The large Salvadoran expatriate community in Maryland and Virginia will be supporting their team in large numbers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, when hot, muggy conditions and scattered thunderstorms are expected. As of Thursday, ticket sales for the game number more than 50,000.
And based on past examples, the temporary grass surface laid down over the venue's artificial turf could slow down the tempo of the game to La Selecta's benefit.
But the blueprint for the USMNT remains the same.
“We've got to find ways. We've got to move the ball quickly and wait for those moments that they might do a mistake and open up some things. And it ends up in a lot of, lot of work. So it's good that they have now five days until Sunday to recover from that game,” said Klinsmann in Connecticut.
“And they understand that it's going to get only more difficult. Now in the knockout stage, you can't make any mistakes. You've got to be sharp 90 minutes – or maybe even longer.”