Perhaps the single greatest benefit of VAR, once it’s instituted in MLS on a trial basis from Aug. 5 onward, is to burn off the fog of war and eliminate missed poor conduct red cards referees couldn’t possibly see. There is no injustice quite like seeing your teammate’s nipple twisted and the ref missing the call entirely.
Wait. Did I say nipple? Yes, America. Yes I did. I said nipple.
From a purely soccering standpoint, Wednesday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal between the U.S. and El Salvador was immediately forgettable (perhaps regrettable too?). Bruce Arena went with a Frankenstein 4-4-2 with Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe providing a soft middle. Clint Dempsey was Jozy Altidore’s second striker, and ideally he’d dip deep to collect and go from Nagbe’s service. This didn’t happen with any real consistency or verve. Dempsey mostly roamed without impetus in the final third, while Nagbe stayed tethered to Bradley in an attempt to spring attacks (as was correct).
As a result, the central channel was more or less useless. Everything came down the wings, and when your wide men are Paul Arriola, who wants nothing to do with crosses, and Gyasi Zardes, whose idea of a cross is sending a weather balloon into the ionosphere, the result is a broken final third. The U.S. was caught in a Catch 22 where the only thing it could do with consistency was bomb the flanks, but once it got there it could do little with the space.
The U.S. won anyway, because the one area where Arena excels as a coach is cutting to the quick and emphasizing chance-taking above all else. El Salvador was under water in this. Arena’s teams are rarely ever sophisticated, but they’ll almost invariably pepper the goalmouth with chance after unrelenting chance. Even if the process toward getting there is a bit herp-derpy, the U.S. under Arena rarely complicates matters, an all-too-often problem under previous management.
And so it was 2-0, the U.S. moving on to the semifinal against Costa Rica and El Salvador into a state of ignominy, even in a brutish CONCACAF.
El Salvador played its quarterfinal as though the USMNT had personally insulted the mothers of each individual player down the handshake line. The most obvious of course was the bite/nipple twist from El Salvador’s Henry Romero on Jozy Altidore in the run-up to a set piece. It’s important to note here that there is, apparently, no such thing as Peak CONCACAF, just a series of escalating embarrassments stretching off into an infinite sunset.
What is this. What is this.
This is, without question, the weirdest foul I’ve ever seen (the nipple twist is a bit obscured here, but… yeah). But it did not happen in a vacuum. El Salvador spent the match taking whacks at anyone in a blue and red uni who happened to trot into their general vicinity. El Salvador was whistled for 26 fouls, although incredibly none (including this one, which didn’t even earn a whistle) led to a red card. In reality, El Salvador probably could’ve finished this game on eight or nine men.
This wasn’t even the only biting incident.
That’s San Jose defensive midfielder Darwin Ceren, who also happened to be El Salvador’s captain, taking a bite out of Omar Gonzalez’s back.
There seemed to be a leg-breaking challenge from El Salvador every couple minutes. Perhaps the most egregious was one that didn’t even land. Right back Eric Lichaj was the game’s surprise goal-scorer, left-footing in a low-roller moments before half after embarking on a bizarre-if-effective 80-yard run across the face of goal. His first movement in that run was a quick offloaded pass to Jozy Altidore to spring himself into space. Had that challenge landed, Lichaj’s right foot would’ve gone spinning off into space.
This was just sort of the way of it for 90 minutes. It was endlessly bizarre. CONCACAF has a reputation for rough-and-ready games, but this had a knife-edge of malice to it that was impossible to miss. El Salvador took every opportunity to push the game over the edge, and on several occasions the U.S. obliged them in joining.
In any case, the U.S. is through and there were no enduring injuries, so I suppose you take that and run home with it. The moral of the story, as you will no doubt tell your children tonight at bedtime, is to always protect your nipples during set pieces. Classic rookie mistake.