Now the young Americans understand how tough World Cup qualifying is going to be.
The USMNT salvaged a tie against a scrappy El Salvador team Thursday night, coming away with a point after squandering a handful of good chances. But considering only Mexico won its opener in the final round of Concacaf qualifying, the 0-0 result in San Salvador could have been much worse.
The U.S. plays Canada on Sunday in Nashville. The USMNT wraps up this first qualifying window with a game in Honduras on Wednesday.
The Americans barely resemble the team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Only six players on the 25-man roster had played in a World Cup qualifier, and one of them, Christian Pulisic, was back in Nashville trying to regain his fitness after a bout with COVID-19.
But this game gave the young USMNT a crash course in why qualifying is a crapshoot – even for what is arguably one of the best teams in the region. A stadium that was supposed to have limited capacity due to COVID restrictions was packed with loud, boisterous fans. When Gio Reyna took corner kicks, he was flanked by security guards with riot shields to block the debris thrown at him.
And teams that are, on paper, of lesser quality, will play above expectations.
Not that the Americans didn’t have chances. Kellyn Acosta had a shot in the 76th that Mario Gonzalez swatted off the post. Three minutes earlier, Reyna fed Weston McKennie in front of the goal, and he probably would have scored had his head been up rather than down.
El Salvador’s best chance came in the 57th, when Eriq Zavaleta had a header from close range off a corner kick. But Matt Turner, playing because Zack Steffen was out with back spasms, was able to smother the ball.
The Americans started fast, with Reyna and Miles Robinson both having good chances in the first nine minutes. Reyna rustled the side of the net in the third, and Robinson’s header was just a touch too high in the ninth.
It seemed as if it was only a matter of time before the USMNT got a goal, which wouldn’t have been a surprise. The United States had never lost to El Salvador in World Cup qualifying, and just once in the teams’ previous 24 meetings.
That lone loss came way back in 1992, when reaching the World Cup wasn’t considered a given.
But this is not the same El Salvador team the USMNT is used to facing.
Coached by Hugo Perez, who played for the United States in the 1994 World Cup, and drawing players from all over the world, El Salvador has improved quickly. It was impressive against Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup, where it reached the quarterfinals.
And after that first 10 minutes, it settled down and gave the Americans all they could handle. If not for troubles finishing, El Salvador would have had the USMNT scrambling.
But Ronald Rodriguez’s header off a corner in the 17th sailed just over the crossbar, and a shot in the 33rd by Alex Roldan – whose brother, Cristian, plays for the USMNT – was a little too wide.