Wednesday night’s U.S. national team friendly against El Salvador was an odd one, occurring as it did following an ad hoc camp scheduled outside a FIFA window, during December (the USA hasn’t played a December game since 2001) and just a few days before the MLS Cup final.
Adding to the strange occasion before a smattering of fans at Inter Miami CF Stadium in Fort Lauderdale was the fact that the Salvadorans seemed to have no interest in competing. The visitors essentially stood still as coach Gregg Berhalter’s young, MLS-based starters ran riot in the first half, scoring an astonishing five goals in 11 minutes. Among the three debutants in the USA’s first XI, Orlando City forward Chris Mueller tallied twice and Toronto FC’s Ayo Akinola scored once during the surge. The remaining hour of the game constituted a relaxed American procession to an easy and anticlimactic 6-0 victory.
The 22nd-ranked USA extended its all-time advantage over El Salvador to 18-1-5 and ended a difficult year, which included a nine-month pause necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, with a 3-0-1 mark in four exhibitions.
Here are three thoughts from the final game–which was barely a game–of 2020:
An 11-minute eruption ends any doubt
It was apparent early that there’d be space behind the Salvadoran back four, as midfielder Brenden Aaronson won a seventh-minute corner kick with a run down the right. El Salvador failed to adjust, and 10 minutes later, the rout began.
Unable to possess the ball, unwilling to pressure the USA in midfield and uninterested in dropping their defenders to compensate, El Salvador was torn apart by American attackers who had time and space to spare. The first goal was the most gratifying, as D.C. United forward Paul Arriola, who lost the vast majority of the year to an ACL tear, took advantage of some chaos in the Salvadoran penalty area to finish off a nice cut-back by Mueller.
It was Mueller’s turn in the 20th, when midfielder Jackson Yueill latched on to a long rebound and fed the Orlando City man for a calm, 15-yard finish.
Three minutes later, Sebastian Lletget—the only player to appear in all four U.S. games this year—received a pass from Aaronson, outran a couple defenders and chipped the goalkeeper (with the help of a deflection).
Mueller scored his second on a diving header in the 25th, and in the 27th, he passed up the chance at a hat trick to slide a cross to the right for Akinola.
“Chris gave us exactly what we wanted from him,” Berhalter said of Mueller following the game. “I said, ‘Just be you. Be Chris Mueller. We watched you all season long and this is what we want you to bring to the team.’ And that’s what he did bring—that energy, that relentlessness, that continuing to go, continuing to push. You see good things happen when you play like that, so I was really pleased with Chris.”
The dust eventually settled and the game inevitably slowed down, the only question remaining concerning the level of the hosts’ interest in adding to their lead.
It was easy to look good, and multiple Americans did
Every national team camp represents a priceless opportunity to make a statement, and El Salvador did its part to ensure multiple U.S. players had the chance to make an impression.
Berhalter is a big fan of Arriola, and it was easy to see why on Wednesday. The 25-year-old is an energetic, skillful and smart player, and his absence hurt D.C. significantly this year. He returned in time to play a few minutes of United’s season finale, then came into national team camp eager to regain his form and demonstrate that he’ll be a factor in 2021. With ample room to combine on the right with Aaronson and right back Julian Araujo—the third starting debutant—Arriola was a factor from the opening minutes against El Salvador. After scoring in the 17th, he helped set up Mueller’s second goal. Arriola then set the play in motion that led to Akinola’s score. In the 44th, Arriola hit a pass after a run down the right that probably should’ve resulted in Mueller’s third.
“It almost brought me to tears after the game when we handed him the man of the match, because imagine what he’s gone through this year,” Berhalter said when asked about Arriola. “You imagine that in January he played his last game for us. He’s played one game since then, and he comes back and performs at this level in December. I’m really impressed with it. It shows what type of character Paul has. It shows the work he’s put in.”
Mueller’s pair obviously will attract attention, and his header off an Araujo cross in the 25th was exquisite. Aaronson and Lletget also enjoyed strong performances, with the former scoring his first international goal in the 50th minute off a feed from the latter. Yueill’s passing from the No. 6 spot, which was played during last month’s European camp by Tyler Adams, was effective, and the U.S. defenders were rarely troubled.
Araujo is worth a mention. The LA Galaxy’s 19-year-old prefers playing right back but has sufficient skill on the ball that he was played further forward several times during the MLS season. He’s comfortable in advanced positions and has excellent vision and delivery, as his cross to Mueller demonstrated. He’s also one of several dual-nationals who took part in this month’s camp, and he acknowledged this week that the ultimate decision to represent his native USA or his parents’ native Mexico will be a difficult one.
“Obviously it's a tough decision, and it's something that is really hard for me,” he said. “But I don't think about it too much and right now, I'm just focused and I just want to grow as a player and continue to get better each and every day.”
He looked good on Wednesday, and if he commits to the USA he’d be an option for both the Olympics and the Concacaf Gold Cup next summer.
More challenging opponents are around the corner
Assuming El Salvador was paid an appearance fee, U.S. Soccer couldn’t be blamed if it considered asking for a refund. It’s easy to imagine that Berhalter’s training sessions in South Florida were tougher than Wednesday’s game. It wasn’t the sort of matchup that, on the surface, might lead a coach to draw too many conclusions about his player pool.
There will be additional opportunities, however, for the players who need them—the men in MLS and on the fringes of the national team core who want to make their case ahead of a 2021 that features the start of World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup, the Olympics, the Nations League final four and a couple friendlies during the March FIFA window that’ll set it all in motion. The first big chance should come at the annual January camp, which Berhalter said last week he hopes to stage and then conclude with a single friendly.
Those on the books at UEFA Champions League clubs, and their colleagues making their way through the ranks in Europe, will enjoy a benefit of the doubt that the likes of Arriola, Yueill and Mueller may not. In a sense, they were robbed on Wednesday of the opportunity to show their wares against a worthy opponent. That makes the January camp all the more vital for those hoping to impress Berhalter and break through with the senior or Olympic teams.
Arriola said in Florida that MLS players believe there are legitimate opportunities there for them, and after Wednesday’s walkthrough, they’ll be gratified there should be more chances to come.
“When we come into camp, to make it count, that's the most important thing. It's showing the coaching staff, showing the teammates and showing the country that you deserve to be here and you're able to represent everyone at the highest level,” Arriola said. “Everyone has a chance to step up and make a difference on the team. No matter the age, no matter the caps, no matter how many years that they've played. It's exciting to see all the young talent that's coming up in Europe, in MLS, in this camp. I think we have amazing players and I think the country should be excited for what's to come for the national team."