The U.S. men's national team's road to redemption, in the form of a 2022 World Cup berth, began with no goals and one point away from home.
The U.S. had its chances but settled for a 0–0 draw vs. El Salvador Thursday night at Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador, where the first of 14 qualifying matches took place. Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta missed on close-range headers late, but save for set pieces, the U.S. defense was hardly troubled in securing the point, which puts the U.S. level with six other sides in the Concacaf table.
Henry Martin's late winner gave Mexico a 2–1 victory over Jamaica at a fan-less Estadio Azteca to put El Tri atop the table, but Canada-Honduras and Panama–Costa Rica also ended in draws on the opening night of the region's qualifying tournament.
After missing the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. is focused on getting back to the grand stage—even if this group is not dwelling on what transpired four years ago. Instead, a slew of young players led by a new coach are looking to ride the momentum of having won two Concacaf trophies this summer and climbing to 10th in FIFA's world ranking. To keep that momentum going, they had to do so without two presumed starters, with Christian Pulisic (COVID-19, fitness) and Zack Steffen (back spasms) both unavailable for the match. They've remained in Nashville to train before the rest of the U.S. joins them Friday ahead of Sunday's qualifier vs. Canada at Nissan Stadium. This three-match window concludes with a Sept. 8 trip to San Pedro Sula to face Honduras.
Their absences weren't the only notables in Gregg Berhalter's starting lineup. Center back rock John Brooks was left on the bench, with veteran Tim Ream partnering with Gold Cup hero Miles Robinson in front of Matt Turner, who earned the start with Steffen out hurt. Brenden Aaronson and Konrad de la Fuente entered the XI as well, with Pulisic out and Sebastian Lletget among the substitutes.
After a raucous set of national anthems, with a crowd appearing to be significantly greater than the 29,000 cap that was supposed to be set, and with nearby fireworks blaring for the opening few minutes, the U.S. had the first early chance. DeAndre Yedlin surged forward and found Gio Reyna, who broke into the box but fired into the side netting in the third minute.
A couple of minutes later, Aaronson nearly benefited from a fortuitous deflection, with the ball looping just over the El Salvador crossbar.
Three minutes later, the U.S. had a chance that was eerily reminiscent of the goal that won the Gold Cup. After Konrad earned a free kick, Reyna curled in a ball to the center of the box, where Robinson headed over the bar. It was Robinson who headed home Acosta's service on a nearly identical play to clinch the extra-time win over Mexico on Aug. 1.
El Salvador provided a scare of its own in the 16th minute. Off a corner kick, center back Ronald Rodriguez was the first to meet the service and headed just wide of the mark to keep things scoreless.
El Salvador was gifted another set piece in the 33rd minute and nearly cashed in on it. With Turner taking his eye off the ball on his own endline and having it go out for a corner, Alex Roldan—whose brother and fellow Seattle Sounder, Cristian, began the night on the U.S. bench—shook Yedlin and deftly lifted a right-footed chance to the far post, not missing by much.
With the first half coming to a close, the U.S. had another chance to open the scoring. Konrad did well to create space for a cross from the left, picking out McKennie in the El Salvador box. The Juventus midfielder headed down for Josh Sargent, whose bouncing volley from the edge of the box went wide right of the post.
Set pieces continued to be El Salvador's best shot at breaking through, and Eriq Zavaleta, Toronto FC's Indiana-born center back, forced Turner into a diving save with his header off a corner kick, with the U.S. goalkeeper smothering it as he went down and to his left in the 57th minute.
Berhalter went to his bench for the first time in the 64th minute, making a triple substitution (teams are allotted up to five subs, across three stoppages) by bringing Acosta, Antonee Robinson and Jordan Pefok in and taking Konrad, Sargent and Sergiño Dest off.
The U.S. looked livelier after the changes, and in the 72nd minute nearly went ahead. Reyna followed his own blocked shot and carried down the left-hand side before lofting in a cross for McKennie, who timed his run well. He couldn't get his header from the center of the box down accurately, though, and it trickled wide of the post.
McKennie then played provider four minutes later on another close call. Pefok did well to keep possession and slip a pass through the Salvadoran defense, with McKennie running onto it and surging down the right-hand side. His cross picked out Acosta, whose leaping header was kept out by goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez.
Neither side threatened in the waning minutes, though, with both settling for the point that puts them in the middle of the pack with a long, albeit compressed, qualifying road ahead.
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