After a stunning 2-0 loss to Canada, the United States U-23 men's national team faces a must-win match against El Salvador to keep its hopes of qualifying for this summer's London Olympics alive. Here are some of the storylines to watch entering the all-important match:
Somehow, it's come to this for the favored U.S. A must-win game against El Salvador just to reach the semifinals of the Olympic qualifying tournament, where a berth in the Olympics would be on the line.
The series of events feels very much like this past summer's Gold Cup, when a shocking loss to Panama forced the U.S. senior national team into a must-win situation over Guadeloupe just to get out of its group. That U.S. team responded with an early goal and came through, and as captain Freddy Adu, who was part of that senior side, said on U.S. Soccer's website, "[The El Salvador game] is our final, and everybody understands that. We know what we have to do to move on." Getting off to a fast start tonight is critical, as this is a young team, and the longer the result is not in the U.S.' favor, the more nerves come into play.
At the very least, coach Caleb Porter's charges control their own destiny. Taking care of business tonight would allay the worst fears and put the U.S. team a step away from reaching its goal of playing on the world stage this summer.
The U.S. cannot possibly look past tonight's match, but if they get the result they need, securing qualification to the Olympics will almost certainly have to go through Mexico, which was the worst-case scenario entering the tournament.
With Mexico bound to win Group B and Canada looking unlikely to play down to Cuba's level and settle for a tie or get beaten (if that scenario unfolded, the U.S. would be able to advance with a draw; the U.S. will know for certain before first kick as the Cuba-Canada game precedes the match against El Salvador), a second-place finish in Group A would put the Americans in a semifinal match against the Mexicans. Led by rising star striker Alan Pulido, Mexico has looked every bit as dangerous as advertised and quite motivated after being manhandled in a 2-0 friendly loss to the United States almost a month ago.
After nabbing one of CONCACAF's two places in London seemed like a foregone conclusion, the road to the Olympics has become a lot more treacherous.
If Porter elects to start Hamid in goal over Sean Johnson again, he'll be relying on a young goalkeeper coming off his shakiest performance in a national team uniform. Hamid should have done better on both goals the U.S. conceded to Canada, failing to show the trademark aggressiveness and instincts that have made him a rising star in both MLS and on the international level and allowing Canadian attackers to win headers in his 6-yard box.
The last thing the U.S. can handle right now is an unsure goalkeeper in a must-have game. In his brief club career, Hamid has demonstrated accountability and a knack for bouncing back from mistakes, but he has also never played in a match with this much on the line.
Canada used a tactical approach of sticking players behind the ball, clogging the midfield and forcing the United States to operate down the flanks, and the plan worked. El Salvador, however, has proved to be more prone to playing an attacking, open style in its two matches, which is something that could play into Porter's hands.
Getting into a track meet and keeping space open in the midfield gives the United States -- specifically opening-game hero Joe Corona -- an advantage, and while U.S. defenders will need to show vast improvement to contain Salvadoran hitman Lester Blanco and winger Jaime Alas, more opportunities to play through the center should arise for the attack-minded Americans. Should El Salvador, which needs just a draw to advance, elect to play it safe, take a page out of the Canada playbook and alter its tactics, Porter's players could be in for a battle.
Heavy legs and fatigue were always going to come into play considering the three-game, five-day group stage, and it's something to keep an eye on for both teams. El Salvador has had five field players play every minute thus far, but Blanco and Alas have each had the luxury of being subbed off once and preserving their energy.
For the United States, field players Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen, Ike Opara, Mix Diskerud and Adu have played all 180 minutes in two matched since Thursday. Will Porter adjust his lineup accordingly? It's unlikely. Depth in the back -- specifically in central defense -- is not a luxury he has afforded to him, and Diskerud and Adu are two of the more vital pieces to the U.S. attack. Porter was surely hoping that the group finale would have presented a chance to get his horses some rest before the semifinals, but with everything on the line, he'll need them all to dig deep tonight.
One likely change is Terrence Boyd getting the call up top. With Juan Agudelo out for the tournament with a torn meniscus and Teal Bunbury struggling to find his top form, Boyd should have the chance to see the lion's share of minutes as the center forward.