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U.S. earns spot in Gold Cup semis after sloppy victory over El Salvador

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The United States’ Clint Dempsey, right, battles El Salvador’s Darwin Ceren during Wednesday’s Gold Cup quarterfinals match in Philadelphia.
(Dominick Reuter / AFP / Getty Images)

It’s not always a good idea to combine family vacations with business trips. But so far, Eric Lichaj has managed to make both work this summer.

The U.S. defender decided to bring his English-born wife Kathryn and the couple’s two daughters with him to the Gold Cup, footing the bill for their flights and hotel rooms while giving them a chance to see sights they’ve never seen before.

Wednesday’s postcard moment was Lichaj’s first international goal, which capped a chippy 2-0 quarterfinal victory over El Salvador, one that featured as many goals as it did players getting bit.

Omar Gonzalez scored the other goal for the U.S., which ran its unbeaten streak to 12 games while qualifying for the Gold Cup semifinals for the ninth straight tournament. The Americans will next play Costa Rica — a 1-0 winner over Panama in the other quarterfinal — Saturday in Arlington, Texas.

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“We’ll be booking a flight tonight,” said Lichaj, who admitted he’ll lose money on the tournament no matter where the team finishes.

Ideally the vacation will end in Santa Clara, where next week’s tournament final will be played. But to get there the Americans will need a better effort than they showed Wednesday, when they struggled through a sloppy first half.

“We had a difficult time tonight,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “Our timing wasn’t good. We didn’t deal well with the physicality. The game had no rhythm. It took us 30 minutes to play a little bit.”

Part of the blame for that lies with Arena, who added five starters to his roster for the tournament’s knockout stage. The lack of chemistry was apparent in the early going.

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But Arena also found fault with referee Drew Fischer, who failed to take control of the match.

“I don’t think games should look like that,” Arena said. “Too many fouls, time-wasting, players falling on the ground. The game had no rhythm.”

Gonzalez finally rose above all that in the 41st minute, leaping to get on the end of a long Michael Bradley free kick and heading it home to give the U.S. the only goal it would need.

Lichaj doubled the advantage two minutes into first-half stoppage time, taking a deft feed from Clint Dempsey, settling the ball with his right foot, then sending it through keeper Derby Carrillo’s legs with his left.

After the ball hit the net, Lichaj spun and dashed off to celebrate by sliding into the corner flag, where he was engulfed by teammates. At least that’s how it looked. The reality, Lichaj said, was a bit different.

“I started running and I realized ‘I’m really tired here. I’m going to fall over,’” he said. “I was just laying there until the guys came over.”

That helped make up for what Lichaj admitted was a bad first half, one in which he nearly gave away a goal with a weak pass that El Salvador’s Rodolfo Zelaya jumped on, leading to a breakaway.

But keeper Tim Howard charged well off his line and slid into Zelaya at the edge of the box to break up the play.

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“He got me out of the dirt that,” Lichaj said of Howard. “I needed that goal because I wasn’t having the best of games.”

Aside from that, Lichaj has had a good tournament. And after largely dropping off the national team radar while playing in England, the Gold Cup has pushed him into contention for a spot at right back on next summer’s World Cup team, should the U.S. make it that far.

“He’s a good, solid player,” Arena said.

“One of the things we’ve benefited from in the tournament was that we have been able to look at lot of players and see how they fit in the big picture. And Lichaj’s one of them.”

The game, which was physical throughout, turned especially rough in the second half when El Salvador’s Henry Romero bit American Jozy Altidore and twisted his nipple, and Salvadoran captain Darwin Ceren chomped on Gonzalez.

“There’s a history of that in our sport,” Arena said in reference to Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, who has been penalized three times for biting opponents.

“There should have been players sent off tonight.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11


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