The formula for qualifying for the World Cup is very simple: win at home, tie on the road. In the first two games of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying the US has done just that. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the US tied an overmatched, domestic-based El Salvador team Saturday night. Playing at the bandbox Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador, El Salvador, buoyed by a raucous capacity crowd, began the game flying. The US was unable to match their energy and went down early on a goal that resulted from sloppy defending and a nice combination by two attacking Salvadoran players at the top of the 18. For all but maybe the last 15 minutes of the match the US was second best on loose balls and challenges, losing out to physically and technically inferior players. The US passing was terribly off; most one-touch passes and flicks did not find their way to the intended target. The players looked uncomfortable with and unfamiliar to each other. Perhaps it was the noise in the stadium. After the game Landon Donovan, the leading capwinner on the team, said it was as loud a game as he’s been in in Central America. Defender Dan Califf, who filled in for an injured Oguchi Onyewu, said he could not communicate with anyone who was more than 10 feet away. In addition to missing Onyewu, goalkeeper Brad Guzan was playing instead of starter Tim Howard who was suspended for yellow card accumulation. On the road in Central America is not where you want to be forced into changing your lineup. Regardless, the coordination should have been better.
On the first El Salvador goal, though it was a nice combination, Heath Pearce and US captain Carlos Bocanegra share the blame. Bocanegra committed to a tackle and missed everything. When Pearce should’ve been pinched in, he remained wide leaving a large gap for the Salvadoran player to run through and receive an excellent one-touch pass. There was nothing Guzan could do about the low, hard shot from inside 15 yards. The goal broke a spell of US possession, and came against the run of play. It energized the Salvadorans further. Though there was not much cohesiveness in the Salvadoran possession or attack, they were certainly committed to disrupting the US. After the goal El Salvador tried to defend and waste time for the remaining 75 minutes. They made some individual forays forward, but for the most part defended with 10-11 players. The time-wasting tactics were disgraceful. At one point the Salvadoran goalie went down under no contact and laid on the ground for six minutes before continuing to play. In the 72nd minute against all odds the Salvadorans scored a second goal. Apparently that is what it took to wake the US because the field tilted at that point; all action moved to in front of the Salvadoran goal.
61st minute sub Jozy Altidore and right back Frankie Hejduk were instrumental in getting the US going. Altidore helped Brian Ching win balls, hold onto the ball in attacking positions and then dish them off to on-rushing attacking players. On the first US goal Ching laid a ball off to Hejduk, Hejduk hit a back-post cross that Altidore headed in. It looked so easy. Just five minutes later Hejduk nudged Altidore out of the way and headed in a corner kick that a Salvadoran player had flicked on. The chances didn’t stop there; they continued through the seven minutes of stoppage time that the Mexican referee rightfully added. A potentially game-winning Brian Ching bicycle kick beat the goalkeeper but was headed over the crossbar by a defender. When the game ended it looked like the Salvadorans had just been through a war and the US could have played another game.
As for individual performances, the grit and determination of Hejduk was once again paramount. After the game he was asked if the comeback was a result of the US picking up their game or the Salvadorans letting down. Hejduk said: “They thought the game was over. It’s never going to be over against us. We’re going to battle hard, we’re going to fight hard, we’re going to fight to the end every single time.” His play exemplified that belief and it inspired the play of the team. The US central midfielders Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan did not have much of an impact on the game. The Salvadorans played in the wide areas exclusively and packed it in defensively so the simple play wide was usually the option taken. Kljestan and Bradley each had opportunities to shoot from distance and neither were able to test the goalkeeper. Bradley was the better of the two; he brought more energy and was more forceful in his attacking play. Jose Francisco Torres came in for Kljestan after the second Salvadoran goal. He was able to assert more control in the middle of the field. He moved the ball quickly and was certainly a positive influence on the US domination over the last 20 minutes. Might we see him replace Beasley Wednesday?
Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley were the wide midfielders though both pinched in often. Dempsey played with rugged determination. He and Landon Donovan both began to seek more of the ball and take more responsibility after going down two goals. Neither had anything tangible on the scoresheet to show for their efforts but surely their willingness to take the ball with speed right at the heart of the defense unbalanced their opponents. Donovan was partnered with Ching up top. Normally very comfortable and cohesive, the partnership floundered on this night. In games against teams that will pack it in Donovan is more effective playing deeper, facing the defense. When Ching did win or hold onto a ball played forward he was often outnumbered three to one. It wasn’t the performances of the players that was lacking as much as it was the tactics that needed to be adjusted. Once Altidore came in and Donovan dropped off a little, the US was able to maintain possession in the attacking end and create more opportunities. Credit manager Bob Bradley for the change though it should have come at the half rather than 60 minutes. Beasley struggled. He lackadaisically lost the ball that resulted in the second goal. He lacked conviction in the attacking end. At points he almost looked disinterested.
In the back the defenders had little to do. Unfortunately when called upon they did not do well. El Salvador had three shots on goal and scored two of them. Outside of Hejduk, Califf had the best performance. He was sure in the tackle and smart with his positioning. Other than the gaffe on the first goal Bocanegra was also solid. Pearce struggled. He did not contribute anything moving forward and he did not defend effectively. I will not be surprised if we see Jonathan Spector replace Pearce at left back Wednesday when the US plays Trinidad and Tobago in Nashville. Goalkeeper Guzan did not have much to do either. The second goal was savable…not an easy save, but Howard likely would’ve kept it out. Guzan is still young for a goalkeeper, however, and having the experience of playing a qualifier in Central America will certainly speed his maturation.
The third set of matches are in two days. After two matches the US is the only team to have taken points from the first two, sitting in place with four points. Mexico and Costa Rica are on three points while El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago are on two, and Honduras is on one. Playing at home Wednesday the US is expected to win handily. I’ll be in Nashville rooting the good guys on. Here’s hoping they’ll play with the same purpose from the opening whistle that they did the last 15 minutes against El Salvador.