SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- The United States men's national team experienced precisely the kind of game against El Salvador that it expected, even if it wasn't the result -- or performance -- it wanted. And while the U.S walked away with something in tying 0-0 with Los Cuscatlecos, one couldn't help but sense that points were left on the table.
Some of the disappointment stems from how long the U.S. has waited to replace the humiliation of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with a happier memory. The twin triumphs of the CONCACAF Nations League and CONCACAF Gold Cup -- not to mention an exciting generation of young players -- also served to increase expectations. The reality remains that winning World Cup qualifiers on the road in the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football is as difficult as ever, but this was a game that was there for the taking, and the U.S. didn't.
You can count U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter among those not satisfied with the performance. He said postmatch: "[It was] a great learning experience for our group. From my vantage point, there's a lot of things to improve on. I thought the fight was good, the intention to win the game was good, but we've got to get better. We've got to be more connected as a team, and be able to finish our chances in a better way."
The match was a baptism for some members of the U.S. starting lineup, nine of whom were playing in their first World Cup qualifier. Weston McKennie felt comfortable enough during a prematch walk of the field to allow some fans to take some selfies with him. But any lingering sense that the atmosphere would be run-of-the-mill evaporated when the Salvadoran national anthem was played. Those in attendance -- well beyond the 29,000 listed by authorities -- shouted the anthem more than they sang it, making hair stand on end and rendering the fireworks and confetti on display superfluous.
The U.S. still managed to start brightly enough, looking dangerous on the break and a good early spell was punctuated by Miles Robinson's eighth-minute header that went just over the bar. After that, the U.S. lost its way in attack, allowing the home side to start threatening in transition and probing the left side of the U.S. defense. The game became more of a scrap rather than one where the U.S. had control, and that dynamic carried on for the rest of the match. This suited El Salvador, managed by former U.S. international Hugo Perez, just fine.
"There needs to be a calm that sets in after that initial period where we start taking over, and we never really had that," Berhalter said. "We never really had the calm. It was bits and pieces in the second half, but overall, not enough."
The game certainly featured the usual level of CONCACAF-y-ness, complete with tactical fouls (19 of the game's 30 fouls were committed by the U.S., it should be noted), and projectiles hurled from the stands during U.S. corner kicks, primarily at Giovanni Reyna who for some reason has become a magnet for such abuse. For the U.S., the CONCACAF calluses have already started to form. As U.S. captain Tyler Adams said after the game: "Gio, going to take a corner, when he's playing in Dortmund, he's not getting hit with water bottles."
Gio Reyna getting his first experience of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the USMNT 😳 pic.twitter.com/SXF7ViuYqE— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 3, 2021
The U.S. did manage to create the game's better opportunities, including a 76th-minute header from substitute Kellyn Acosta that was saved by El Salvador goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez. But too often the execution in the final third was lacking, resulting more in half chances than clear-cut sights at goal. Honor is due to the Salvadoran defense, which pressured the U.S. into its share of turnovers. But the U.S. needed quicker tempo from the likes of Reyna, McKennie and Brenden Aaronson, as well as striker Josh Sargent. There was too much dribbling into traffic instead of keeping the ball moving.
"When you get in the final third, that's where you just come alive, just do it," Adams said. "Do what you're good at, be a little bit selfish at moments, take shots be dangerous. I think in games like that, it's important to test the goalkeepers, test the defense, make them uncomfortable. A lot of times I think that we were playing maybe in between the lines instead of running in behind and using our speed and our power, and some of our qualities that we have."
Defensively, this was a night where the play of center-backs Tim Ream and Miles Robinson stood out. The duo was a surprise partnership, given that John Brooks was thought to be the incumbent of the left center-back role. But with squad rotation on Berhalter's mind as the U.S. will play three games in seven days, he went with Ream and Robinson, and the pair were the two best U.S. players on the field, playing with composure out of the back and putting out any fires that came their way. That hasn't always been Ream's reputation at international level, given that historically he was good for one massive error per game. But on this night, he was a good shout for Man of the Match.
"We just tried to keep the lines of communication as open as possible," Ream said of his partnership with Robinson. "And really, at times, it was just visual cues. If he moved out wide, I knew that I needed to kind of slide over and cover. But it worked out well. He's a strong, fast, physical kid, and playing really well. It was nice to play with him finally and it was a pretty good partnership."
The same couldn't be said for left-back Sergino Dest, who with each passing game looks more and more like a defensively liability. The result was that Adams was basically left trying to defend two positions, which made it easier for El Salvador's players to play through the U.S. press. Dest didn't offer much in attack on this night either. In assessing Dest's performance, Berhalter was reluctant to go into too much detail, stating: "It's just the learning curve to now perform the work of qualifiers."
But Dest's form isn't a new development, as he struggled in the CONCACAF Nations League back in June as well. The next step seems to be either pull Dest from the lineup or move him to his usual right-back spot. Antonee Robinson looked lively in his 26 minutes of action, and might have made more of an impact if his teammates could have seen fit to reward his overlapping runs.
At least Dest's situation is relatively straightforward. What needs to happen in the attack ahead of the Canada game is more complicated. Clearly, Christian Pulisic's possible return would help things. Pulisic remains the most dynamic attacking piece on the team. But there can't be a return to the Archangel Offense where he is expected to solve everything. There needs to be contributions from others. Reyna needs to stop trying to do everything himself, and Aaronson needs to get on the ball more. Though given the way the U.S. attack perked up when Jordan Pefok and Sebastian Lletget got onto the field, as well as the need for squad rotation, it might make sense to have both of those players on from the start.
The U.S. had made plenty of noise about taking the maximum nine points from this window. That goal has already been reduced, and will serve to ratchet up the pressure heading into Sunday's encounter with Canada in Nashville. One can only hope that the lessons learned against El Salvador will be applied quickly.