The United States shouldn't be booking their tickets to Dallas just yet, as they'll need a strong performance against El Salvador to advance to the 2013 Gold Cup semifinal.
The Americans blew through their first two group stage matches with relative ease. They beat Cuba and Belize by a combined score of 10-2. There were some warning signs against Cuba, though, and the U.S. put in an average performance in their 1-0 win against Costa Rica.
While the Gold Cup isn't the most important international tournament, anything less than a trip to the final will be a disappointment for the U.S. In order to get that far, the Americans must first get past the quarterfinals.
To beat El Salvador, the United States will need to play much better. If they're going to get that kind of improvement, they'll need strong showings from these four players.
Chris Wondolowski shares the lead atop the goalscoring chart with Gabriel Torres after Torres bagged a brace in Panama's 6-1 quarterfinal win over Cuba.
Wondolowski had a hat-trick in the first half against Belize and followed that up with two goals against Cuba. Against Costa Rica, he struggled, and that caused a domino effect on the United States' attack as a whole. El Salvador will be a tough team, nowhere near the minnows that Cuba and Belize were. Wondolowski will need to bring his best.
The Gold Cup is the perfect kind of tournament for a player like Wondolowski. It's hard to think that a 30-year-old striker who's only done his damage in MLS would be effective against top defenses in the 2014 World Cup, but he has made you wonder if he in fact would be effective in the right role.
In the Gold Cup, Wondolowski has been given a great opportunity to prove his worth, and he has made the most of it. If he continues this form, Jurgen Klinsmann won't have any choice but to include him in the squad for Brazil should the U.S. get that far.
Matt Besler was one of the four players Klinsmann added to the Gold Cup roster. It doesn't come a moment too soon as Besler will help to shore up the United States at the back.
The 26-year-old centre-back has quickly become a vital player for the U.S. If you're going to pick a first-choice starting XI, Besler has to be included. The Gold Cup might be a lightly regarded tournament most years. That doesn't mean you should avoid playing one of your best players when he's sitting there on the roster.
Besler is one of the few defenders in whom you feel absolutely confident. When he's at the back, you know the defense is in good hands. Besler does great cutting out attacks and gets himself in the right positions at the right times. El Salvador has some talented attackers, and it will be up to Besler to help ensure those players are marked out of the match.
Klinsmann can opt for a few different combinations in midfield. With El Salvador's attacking trio of Rodolfo Zelaya, Rafael Burgos and Lester Blanco, it might be smarter to deploy Kyle Beckerman as the shield in front of the back four.
The United States can't afford to go all out offensively against El Salvador. The Salvadorans have more than enough to make it hurt when the U.S. is lax in defense or fails to track back to protect against the counter.
With Beckerman in midfield, you know you've got somebody who can help to break up the attack before it gets too deep into the final third. He's not going to offer any sort of threat to score, so some supporters might want to see Mix Diskerud and Stuart Holden together midfield as they offer more going forward. While they provide some defensive help, they aren't the same kind of holding midfielder Klinsmann will need the most.
If Beckerman does play, the United States should have enough in the attack, while not sacrificing much at the back, to get by.
One of the more creative players Klinsmann could use is Jose Torres. Torres has really helped himself in the Gold Cup after falling down the list of Klinsmann's regulars. He's looked as good in a U.S. shirt as he has in a long time.
Wondolowski can't be successful if he doesn't have any service. You're not expecting him to move deeper and deeper to get the ball, then run at the defense. Wondolowski is going to stay in the 18-yard box and wait for his midfielders to help him out.
Torres will be one of those midfielders. Should you see Beckerman in the starting lineup, the importance of Torres will be even greater because he can help to be the link in the center of the pitch.
When he's at his best, Torres brings a creative ability that isn't there sometimes on the pitch for the United States. He's not going to be a vital player down the road, but he definitely has a role to play in the right situations.
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