USMNT and El Salvador play for the qualifying begin of the Concacaf World Cup
The young Americans have a point. And an eye opener.
It’s one thing for US coach Gregg Berhalter to tell his players, most of whom had never played in a World Cup qualifier before, how tough Concacaf’s games are. The full stages. The loud fans. The mottled fields. The debris that is thrown. The resolute opponents beat over their weight.
It is quite a different thing to experience, and now Americans have it.
The USMNT rescued a tie against a divided El Salvador team on Thursday night, scooping up a point after losing a handful of good chances. But considering that only Mexico won their opener in the final round of the Concacaf qualifying, the 0-0 win in San Salvador could have been much worse.
“All of these games are fiercely competitive,” said Berhalter, who had seen World Cup qualification as a player. “Any intention of us to come here and win 3-0, it would really be a challenge. It’s dog fights.
“As much as I wanted to win this game and we wanted this game and the attitude and the game was to win the game, we’re going to take the point and move on.”
The USA will play against Canada in Nashville on Sunday. The USMNT will close this first qualifying window with a game in Honduras on Wednesday.
American football fans have still not recovered from the shock that USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. No doubt some will view the draw with El Salvador, a team the US men face 18-1-6 at all times, as something similar.
But this team hardly resembles this squad. Only six players in the 25-man squad had played in a World Cup qualifier, and one of them, Christian Pulisic, was back in Nashville trying to regain his fitness after a battle with COVID-19.
While this group of Americans is full of talent – 10 are on European teams still playing in the Champions League, and they beat arch-rivals Mexico for titles in two different tournaments this summer – they are inexperienced. Especially in this setting.
“Gio takes that corner kick. If he plays in Dortmund, he won’t be hit with water bottles,” said Tyler Adams, referring to the fact that Gio Reyna was showered with rubble, although he was flanked by security guards with protective shields.
“(These games) are intense,” added Adams. “You’re lively. You’re gritty.”
However, the Americans had their chances. Kellyn Acosta had a shot in the 76th that Mario Gonzalez knocked off the post. Three minutes earlier, Reyna Weston had fed McKennie in front of the gate, and McKennie would probably have hit if his head had been up rather than down. Instead, the ball bounced off the lawn and past the goal.
El Salvador’s best chance came in 57th place when Eriq Zavaleta scored a close-range header from a corner kick. But Matt Turner, who played because Zack Steffen failed with back cramps, was able to choke the ball.
“The guys thought we had more than enough to win the game,” said Tim Ream. “We kept a clean sheet away from home and created a couple of half-chances which I think a lot of guys would get back if they could.
“Disappointed,” he added. “But if you say that, if you don’t win the game, you can’t lose it, and we did.”
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The Americans started quickly, Reyna and Miles Robinson had good chances in the first nine minutes. Reyna rustled in the third goal and Robinson’s header was just a touch too high in the ninth.
It seemed like it was only a matter of time before the USMNT scored, which would not have been a surprise. The USA had never lost to El Salvador in qualifying for the World Cup and only once in their last 24 games.
That lonely defeat came in 1992 when reaching the World Cup was not a given for the USMNT.
But this is not the El Salvador team that Americans are used to.
Coached by Hugo Perez, who played for the United States in the 1994 World Cup and attracts players from around the world, El Salvador has improved rapidly. It was impressive against Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup, where it reached the quarterfinals.
And after those first 10 minutes it calmed down and gave the Americans everything they could handle. If it hadn’t had any problems closing it, El Salvador would have messed up the USMNT.
But Ronald Rodriguez’s header from a corner in the 17th sailed just over the bar, and a shot on the 33rd from Alex Roldan – whose brother Cristian plays for the USMNT – was a bit too far.
This was only the first of 14 qualifiers. While the Americans had spoken of a “nine-point week”, that was probably too optimistic. Especially for a group that is new to the process.
But now they know exactly what they are dealing with.
“These games don’t rely on quality,” said Adams. “You rely on the mentality.”
The USMNT should better have the right team, otherwise this new team won’t do better than the old one.