BALTIMORE -- Welcome to Little San Salvador.
In fact, there may not be much that's "little" about the throng of Salvadoran fans that will almost certainly outnumber U.S. supporters when the two nations meet in the Gold Cup quarterfinals here on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, big FOX, Univision). More than 71,000 tickets had been sold as of Friday morning, including some 46,000 since Tuesday alone. A sell-out at M&T Bank Stadium is possible for the doubleheader, whose nightcap features Honduras-Costa Rica.
When Cuba pulled off a stunner to beat Belize by the four goals the Cubans needed to advance on Tuesday, it sparked a chain reaction that made life harder for the U.S. on Sunday. Instead of facing Martinique before a pro-U.S. crowd, the Americans now meet El Salvador (which, had it not been for the Cuba surprise, would have played in Atlanta).
And guess which U.S. metropolitan area has the largest concentration of Salvadorans other than Los Angeles? Yep: the Washington D.C. area, with some 135,000 Salvadoran-born immigrants and even more second-generation offspring. It was amusing this week to see some media outlets claim the ticket spike since Tuesday was due to the U.S. team playing in Baltimore, when the main reason was that soccer-loving Salvadoran fans learned their team would be playing in their backyard.
Truth be told, I don't have any problems with it. The U.S. gets an advantage from hosting every Gold Cup, but that's mitigated by sometimes having a road atmosphere on U.S. soil. You can expect that on Sunday, just as you can if the U.S. were to meet Mexico in the final on July 28 in Chicago. (We can save the argument for another day over whether U.S. citizens should be cheering for El Salvador and Mexico. My feeling is that will slowly change over time as more U.S. Latinos play and succeed for the U.S. team.)
As for the game itself, the U.S. is a better team than El Salvador, and there's no good reason why the U.S. shouldn't win. Jurgen Klinsmann's outfit is on a roll with an all-time-record eight straight victories. Landon Donovan has been showing the quality Klinsmann wanted to see from him as he tries to earn his way back onto the U.S. World Cup qualifying team. And several other U.S. players have been performing well, including Joe Corona, José Torres, Stuart Holden, DaMarcus Beasley, Mix Diskerud, Clarence Goodson, Michael Orozco, Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman.
Two big questions: How will some of the U.S.'s less-experienced players respond to the raucous stadium atmosphere? And how will the introduction of three new players into the U.S. squad change the equation? Per tournament rules, each team could add as many as four players (and drop four others) for the knockout rounds. Klinsmann was the only coach who brought in more than one player, choosing to call up Eddie Johnson, Alan Gordon, Matt Besler and Omar González. (He dropped Corey Ashe, Jack McInerney, Hérculez Gómez and Oguchi Onyewu. González will join the team for the semis if it advances.)
Will the new U.S. players blend in seamlessly? Or will they jar the chemistry that has already been built over the last two weeks?
El Salvador's biggest threat is Rodolfo Zelaya, the 25-year-old forward who has all three of the team's goals in the tournament. (Zelaya, who's playing for the club Alianza in El Salvador, would be a great signing for an MLS team -- why not D.C. United and its Salvadoran fans?)
There are also some U.S. connections on this Salvadoran team: Jaime Alas was the player who scored the killer added-time goal that knocked the U.S. out of the Olympic qualifying tournament last year. (Several U.S. players here were on that team, including Sean Johnson, Brek Shea, Corona, Diskerud and Bill Hamid.
Also with El Salvador is midfielder Alexander Larín, who punched the U.S.'s Terrence Boyd during that Olympic qualifying tournament game and was reported to have bit Diskerud and Freddy Adu as well. (Larín was subsequently suspended three games for the sucker punch.)
So there's some history here, giving more storylines to an already-compelling Gold Cup quarterfinal. We'll have more for you in the next couple days from Little San Salvador.