Antonee Robinson now has two goals for the U.S. men's national team, and they've both been massive in the quest to qualify for the World Cup.
The Fulham left back's 52nd-minute strike eased the heat on the U.S. on a chilly night in Columbus and held up in a 1–0 win over El Salvador at Lower.com Field Thursday night. Robinson, who also scored a second-half equalizer in what felt like a must-win game in Honduras much earlier in the qualifying cycle, latched onto a headed cross from surprise starter Jesús Ferreira and fired home to calm some nerves that may have been building after a scoreless first half.
The win is guaranteed to keep the U.S. in the top three through nine of 14 matches of the Concacaf Octagonal, from which the first three finishers will automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Concacaf's top three—Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, the joint 2026 World Cup hosts—all won on the night, pulling away even more from the bottom of the table. Fourth place is still a spot they'll want to avoid, though, with that finisher going to an intercontinental, one-match playoff against Oceania's champion in Qatar in June. Panama's loss to Costa Rica puts four points between the U.S. and Los Canaleros for that spot.
The U.S. victory didn't come easy and was the second time the U.S. struggled to break through against El Salvador, which held the Americans to a 0—0 draw to open qualifying on Sept. 2. Since then, El Salvador has mustered just five points in the subsequent seven matches, while the U.S. has risen to second regional standings.
The U.S. looked considerably different than the group that fought through the hostile conditions of Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador nearly five months ago, though. For example, its entire starting front line—Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, Konrad de la Fuente—is not part of the current group, with Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah available for selection this time around and Ricardo Pepi and Ferreira among the choices at center forward. The latter was given the start over the new Augsburg signing (and his former FC Dallas teammate) Thursday night.
The U.S. pressed from the opening kick and nearly forced a comical early goal, with Ferreira blocking goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez's pass out of the back, only for the Salvadoran backstop to recover possession.
El Salvador didn't look particularly bothered by the conditions and enjoyed a slight threat off a throw-in in the seventh minute. Fortunately for the U.S., Sergiño Dest was quick to react to a cross, stepping in front of Jairo Henriquez in the center of the U.S. box to cut out the danger.
The U.S. had its first real, intentional dangerous moment in the 10th minute off a corner kick won by Weah. Pulisic's set piece picked out Yunus Musah, but his header from the center of the box was blocked, and El Salvador cleared.
Pulisic had a chance of his own blocked at the edge of the Salvadoran box in the 13th minute, with Ferreira getting in behind the defense and crossing for the on-rushing Chelsea star.
A couple of minutes later, Ferreira dodged his defender after taking down a short cross from Robinson in the box and had a good look at goal, only to fire over the target.
Three minutes later, Ferreira put another chance over the bar. Dest surged down the right-hand side and crossed into the box, where Weah's flicked-on header picked out Ferreira by the post. He opted to leap and use the outside of his right foot to try to direct it on target, though, and he missed from point-blank range to keep it 0-0.
After remaining on the back foot for a lengthy period, El Salvador nearly scored on the counter. Alex Roldan, whose brother, Cristian, plays for the U.S., whipped a shot right by the far post after a Dest giveaway at the midfield line, letting the U.S. off with a warning instead of dealing the host a deficit.
The U.S. nearly got the go-ahead goal it was seeking in the 42nd minute, when Weah settled a Robinson cross and tried to curl his shot from the center of the box, but a last-ditch tackle got a deflection on the shot and put it out for a corner, from which the U.S. spurned its set-piece chance.
Another moment just before halftime didn't go the U.S.'s way either, with Pulisic going down just inside the El Salvador box after a challenge from Alexander Larin, but no penalty was given despite the U.S. captain's pleas. The goalless half is nothing new to the U.S., which has only scored in the first half of two of its nine qualifying matches to date.
With nerves surely building after a third straight scoreless half vs. Selecta, the U.S. got the goal it needed in the 52nd minute. Weah got inside the Salvadoran box and had a shot saved, but Ferreira headed the rebound in Robinson's path, and the Fulham left back fired in before going into his trademark backflip celebration to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
The floodgates appeared like they would open after the goal. After Gonzalez made a big save, McKennie headed a U.S. corner kick just over the bar, with the hosts seemingly sensing the blood in the water.
Robinson forced another save in the 65th minute, running onto a slight touch from Brenden Aaronson, who had replaced Pulisic, and slicing by a defender before having Gonzalez stop his close-range blast.
The final stages of the match got a bit disjointed. The U.S. made some more swaps in the attack, with Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris replacing Weah and Ferreira, but some sloppy play kept the door cracked open for an El Salvador team that was effectively playing for its qualification life.
Robinson had yet another chance to score an insurance goal in the 85th minute, when Dest passed on the opportunity to shoot from the top of the box and instead laid it off to his fellow fullback. Robinson's right-footed curler was hit right at the Salvadoran keeper, though.
The U.S. continues its qualifying campaign Sunday in Canada before wrapping up the window next Wednesday in Minnesota against Honduras. Given that road matches in Mexico and Costa Rica—two places the U.S. has never won in World Cup qualifying—are on the docket for March, it's imperative for the U.S. to bank as many points as it can this window.
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