Matt Turner produced his his sixth shutout for the USMNT. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
In its first World Cup qualifier in almost four years, the United States did not start off with a bang.
The Americans also didn’t produce a thud.
They walked out of Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador, El Salvador without a goal, but with a precious road point as they played to a scoreless draw in their Concacaf Octagonal opener Wednesday night.
A young U.S. men’s national team hardly played inspired soccer, particularly on attack, but it was good enough to hold the El Salvadorans to a stalemate as it increased its unbeaten streak to 19 games against the hosts.
After a disastrous finish to their 2018 campaign – an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to what was essentially Trinidad & Tobago’s B team in Couva, Trinidad Oct. 10, 2017 – the Americans were hoping to erase that disappointment with a new generation of players.
This young side managed to hold its own in an environment that was not always inviting for the enemy. Still, it had problems connecting in the final third and lacked a killer instinct.
For most of the players it was their first World Cup qualifier and a match in a Central American venue before a capacity crowd. Soccer observers did not expect a full stadium, given the COVID-19 problems in the capital.
“Looking at this as a learning experience, I think the guys handled it well,” U.S. head coach Gregg 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.”
“It was a hostile environment,” U.S. captain Tyler Adams said. “The pitch wasn’t great. We can make a lot of excuses about the game but at the end of the day, there’s some positives to take away. We got a clean sheet. We didn’t give up a goal. We’ll take the point.”
The USA had several players from some players from some big-time European clubs such as Sergino Dest (Barcelona), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) and Weston McKennie (Juventus), but El Salvador managed a point against the visitors.
“I think collectively, the group learned what World Cup qualifiers are for sure,” Berhalter said. “I don’t think we would approach the match again and say we’re going to El Salvador to get a point. That’s not the mindset of this group.”
Center back Tim Ream said he was “disappointed” with the result.
“I thought that the guys felt that that we have more than enough to to win the game,” he added. “We kept a clean sheet, away from home and created traded a few half chances that I think a lot of guys would probably have back if they could.”
A physical affair at times, the game definitely had a Concacaf flavor. The pitch, not surprisingly, was dodgy. El Salvadoran supporters booed the visitors during The Star Spangled Banner. And there were policemen or paramilitary were dressed in riot gear in the corners of the venue.
In fact, police needed to use their shields to protect Gio Reyna from the crowd throwing projectiles while the midfielder attempted a corner kick in the 51st minute. Now, that is something you don’t see every day in Major League Soccer.
It was a learning experience for Reyna and his teammates.
“Oh a hundred percent, there’s a lot that you can take away from that,” Adams said. “You’re going to take a corner, when he’s playing in Dortmund he’s not getting hit with water bottles.”
There was little doubt the Americans needed Christian Pulisic, who was left behind in Nashville, Tenn. as he continued his progress to get match fit after his 10-day quarantine in England after contracting COVID-19. Pulisic should be ready to play against Canada, which played to a 1-1 draw at home Thursday night, in the states Sunday night.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner, who started in place of Zack Steffen (back spasms), was tested a couple of times as he registered his sixth shutout of the summer after earning five clean sheets during the Concacaf Gold Cup.
Berhalter had a couple of surprises in his Starting XI. Ream and Miles Robinson were given the starting nods over John Brooks and Walker Zimmerman at center back. During the postgame press conference, Berhalter indicated he was saving Brooks for Canada Sunday and Honduras next Wednesday.
Real good scoring chances were few and far between for both sides.
“We started the game really well … but we got to finish some of those chances,” Berhalter said. “But overall I think we lacked that connection that that’s really going to get us over the top. It was too much individual play, not enough switching field not enough, making them shift from side to side. In the end we fell short.”
The USA dominated the opening 10 minutes. Brenden Aaronson hit a rebound off his knee over the crossbar in the fifth minute and Reyna sent an nice free kick from the left side to an open Robinson, who headed his chance over the bar four minutes later.
El Salvador started to assert itself and had a close encounter in the 16th minute when Ronald Rodriguez’s header sailed just over the bar.
Turner was called on to make his first save, a diving stop to his left on a Eriq Zavaletain the 52nd minute.
Midfielder Weston McKennie had the most U.S. opportunities and most of them he fired into the stands. His best opportunity was a six-yard shot wide right in the 72nd minute.
El Salvador goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez denied second-half substitute Kellyn Acosta’s six-yard shot in the 76th minute.
“I don’t think they did anything special,” Ream said. “They didn’t do anything that surprised us. We just didn’t execute.”
McKennie and Yedlin accrued yellow cards in the 67th and 68th minutes, respectively, meaning they will have to sit out a game after they register a second caution.
“We know that tangibly it’s not going to be the easiest and we knew that before we had that that first experience,” Adams said. “But now after having that first experience I think that we know we have to dig in a little bit deeper.”