SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Thursday night’s World Cup qualifying opener represented the next stage of a young U.S. men’s national team’s journey and development, and what a stirring stage it was. The Estadio Cuscatlán was loud, pulsing, and at times it felt like it might come to life thanks to a jumping, jam-packed crowd that definitely was way larger than it was supposed to be.
Featuring nine starters making their World Cup qualifying debuts, the U.S. got its Concacaf away-game baptism here in the Salvadoran capital and inside the Cuscatlán crucible. It was everything a road qualifier is supposed to be—tight, tense, cacophonous and challenging. In the end, the Americans escaped with a 0-0 draw, a point in the Octagonal standings and some valuable experience.
“You’re always trying to make sure that the group is ready for the challenge ahead of them,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said back at the team hotel following a hasty departure from the stadium. “In this case, I think it was a really good learning experience for the collective group—just to see what these games are about. You can talk about it, but until you’re actually in them, it’s hard to understand. We got that game under our belt.”
Three of the four matches on the opening night of Concacaf’s Octagonal finished level. That leaves the U.S. (0-0-1) tied for second or seventh on points, depending on your perspective, with Sunday’s crucial contest against Canada (0-0-1) coming up in Nashville. The September window will close with another away game, this time in Honduras, on Sept. 8. The Americans will enter that contest just a little wiser.
On Thursday, both the U.S. and El Salvador had a couple decent scoring chances they’ll probably look back on and lament, but overall it was a game that lacked precision, flow and standout performances. Neither team was able to dictate terms or generate much of a consistent attack. It was an evening of turnovers, chaotic transitions and half-chances.
“It turned into too hectic of a game,” Berhalter acknowledged.
And so the Cuscatlán was the star of the show, and after its predecessor failed to win a single road game in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, this current U.S. squad will take something away (beside the point) from an evening that tested it in new ways.
“I’m not too dissatisfied to be honest,” captain Tyler Adams said. “We knew coming into this it was going to be a learning process for a lot of us. It’s going to be our first experience getting this Concacaf feel. Yeah we’ve had Nations League. Yeah we’ve had the Gold Cup. But that wasn’t with traveling here after playing on a Saturday or Sunday, a quick turnaround, and having to fly down to El Salvador and battle it out and grind it out.
"From an overall team performance, there’s a few positives we can take away from it,” Adams continued. “Of course we want to be better in the final third, a little more combination play, a little more ruthless in front of the goal. But in the end of the day, we got a clean sheet away in our first start. We’ll take that.”
Holding the Cuscatlán at bay was no small thing. With its steep stands and the walls, billboards and suites rising above them, Central America’s largest stadium has a somewhat claustrophobic feel even when empty. But it was filling up hours before kickoff. Fans gradually filed in and covered the famous blue bleachers as the sun set, and music and sirens were blaring at least two hours before the game. Officials had said they expected to allow 29,000 vaccinated people to attend Thursday’s qualifier, which was highly anticipated here in the capital. El Salvador hadn’t advanced this far since the 2010 World Cup cycle.
But that attendance target was exceeded easily. The Cuscatlán was overflowing. Fans choked the aisles, concourse and entryways, and the boisterous singing of the national anthem almost drowned out the two aircraft that flew ceremoniously overhead. The fireworks unleashed when the anthem concluded didn’t stop until almost five minutes had elapsed in the first half. The stadium had an energy that seemed to feed on itself, and the songs, chants and drums rarely subsided.
Berhalter said he thought his team handled the scene reasonably well. He deployed center back Tim Ream and right back DeAndre Yedlin, the squad’s two most experienced international players, to provide some seasoning. El Salvador attacked primarily down its right, targeting struggling U.S. left back Sergiño Dest, but created its best chance through Seattle Sounders midfielder Alex Roldan on the left. The younger brother of U.S. counterpart Cristian Roldan, Alex beat Yedlin on the dribble and cut inside, but then grazed the crossbar with his 33rd-minute shot.
The Americans clearly missed Christian Pulisic, who remained in Nashville while returning to fitness following his COVID-19 quarantine, and didn’t get much out of Josh Sargent or Gio Reyna in the attacking third. Instead, the U.S. came closest to scoring on a trio of headers. Center back Miles Robinson, midfielder Weston McKennie and substitute Kellyn Acosta all had chances, but none converted.
“I think the first couple of minutes were actually good. We silenced the crowd a little bit. We didn’t silence the fireworks, but we silenced the crowd a little bit by getting into their penalty box, getting a lot of little half-chances, and I actually thought we started the game well,” Berhalter said. “But there needs to be a calm that sets in after that initial period where we start taking over and we never really had that. We never really had the calm. It was bits and pieces in the second half, but overall not enough.”
Calm and composure are elusive in Concacaf. It’s a region well known for producing the opposite, and it can leave visitors feeling like they’re constantly on edge or chasing the game. Disparities in talent are obliterated by the noise, the field conditions, the travel and the vigor of an inspired opponent urged on by so many partisans.
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“These games rely on your mentality and how far you can dig deep,” said Adams, who referenced the moment during the second half when riot troops had to shield Reyna from debris near the corner flag as one of those eye-opening “Welcome to Concacaf” moments.
"I talk with my teammates in Leipzig all the time about which games I have during the international window, and they sit there and laugh because they have to play against England, France, some great countries with a lot of talent,” Adams said, “And I tell them, ‘Trust me, I’d rather play against France, England, in these games where the conditions, and the fans, and the pitch, and the ball, everything is an ideal situation. For us, it’s never going to be an ideal situation on the road.
“The energy is just completely different,” he continued. “You have to go into the game with the right mindset and get ready to battle. They’re intense. They’re feisty. They’re gritty. You can’t go into these games naive. The energy going into these games has to be right.”
They know how deep they had to dig to get through Thursday, and Adams said, “We know we have to dig in a little bit deeper in the later stages of the game,” the next time they hit they road.
The qualifying cliché has always been “win at home, tie away.” This U.S. team, which won the Concacaf Gold Cup and Nations League this summer on home soil, has higher aspirations. It wants three points every time out, and it didn’t play Thursday as if it was determined to sneak in and out with a draw. The final product just wasn’t there, and the conditions weren’t conducive to the calm and cohesion Berhalter was seeking. The Octagonal won’t be perfect. It was never going to be perfect. It’s a seven-month slog against teams that know how to make games difficult, and so the U.S. is in a satisfactory spot after a satisfactory start. But the stakes rise with each successive game, and anything less than a win against Canada would blunt some of the program’s momentum.
“Look at the other scores around Concacaf [on Thursday] and they’re all ties, [except] Mexico won in the 90th minute at home. They’re dog fights,” Berhalter said. “We did want to win this game. The attitude and the play was trying to win the game for the whole 90 minutes. But we’ll take the point and we’ll move on.”
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