The pitches on which the World Cup will be played in Qatar this fall are projected to be lush and immaculate, carefully cultivated to provide an optimal stage for the best players on the planet – bearing only the vaguest of resemblances to the sodden sponge of a playing surface that melted into mud under the feet of the US men’s national team and El Salvador at Estadio Cuscatlan Tuesday night.
Autumn conditions in Doha generally tend to be much drier and sunnier than the Central American rainy season, too, with Doha generally getting about as much precipitation in one month as San Salvador got in this one evening. And USMNT World Cup opponents like England, with all due respect to Los Cuscatlecos, are far more talent-rich than Tuesday’s adversaries.
As diametrically different as the circumstances may have been, the Yanks nevertheless gleaned some encouraging data points from their wet and wild 1-1 Concacaf Nations League draw, including some lessons that may help advance their World Cup dreams.
“As we watched the weather come in yesterday and the rain start pouring down, we knew it was going to be challenging from a field conditions standpoint,” said coach Gregg Berhalter postgame. “We went to the stadium yesterday, trained at it and saw the conditions, saw how it was gradually getting worse and knew at game time it wasn’t going to be good.
“And I can only say that really proud of the guys, the way they embraced that. They didn’t hesitate, they didn’t complain, they didn’t complain yesterday in training, they didn’t complain today in the game, they just went about their business.”
Just like Canada in Monday’s CNL loss at Honduras and Mexico’s draw in Jamaica, the US found themselves ambushed by nominally inferior regional rivals, made uncomfortable and frustrated far from home. A stunning first-half goal from Alexander Larin exposed goalkeeper Ethan Horvath’s hesitation and forced a comeback, while a straight red card to Paul Arriola steepened the grade they’d have to ascend to achieve it.
With the Salvadorans, led by USMNT great Hugo Perez, unable to pad their lead or finish with all 11 men either, the door remained open a crack, and a last-gasp delivery from Luca de la Torre’s foot to substitute Jordan Morris’ head at the back post sent them striding through it with surging resilience and self-belief.
“Second half, I think the guys really took the competing, took the intensity to a different level,” said Berhalter. “And to see that from this group, to see the resiliency from this young group, the way they fought, we’re really proud of them. Although we didn’t get the win, I think it’s a good takeaway and a good end to the June camp and really, really brought the guys together in a good way.
“The group grows with moments like this. After the game, Jordan Morris walks into the locker room, everyone starts to cheer. Everyone’s uniform is a dark brown color, the shoes are a mess, the staff is all dirty. And this is what builds teams.”
He and his staff will undoubtedly have further observations to mull from this occasion and the June window overall, some of them much less flattering for the individual players involved. It may be easier to project who played themselves down the depth chart rather than those who clinched spots on the plane to Qatar. Berhalter was brutally frank about the ineffectiveness of Haji Wright, who made his first USMNT start but was removed at halftime:
Wow, harsh words from Berhalter on #USMNT forward Haji Wright. “It’s always difficult when players get a chance and they don’t capitalize on it. It’s difficult for the coaches and it’s difficult for teammates. We thought he could be a force, but it just wasn’t his night tonight.”
Yet in all this, the group sees building blocks for the type of collective they wish to be, and the sort of achievements they aim to chase, at the world’s biggest sporting event.
“Every camp we’re making steps, and as a group we felt like we made steps to progress. Going to a tough environment like that we played in today and getting a result is always positive,” said Morris. “But every time we can get together as a group, it’s just continuing to work on our identity, our style of play, how we know we can play. And I think that’s important because … there’s not a lot of opportunities left before the World Cup. So every time we get a chance to be together as a group, it’s really important.”
“The guys had a different focus to them in this camp,” said the coach. “Although we had some more free time off the field, when they’re on the training field, at the stadium before the games, they had a different focus, and the group grew together, the group grew stronger throughout these three weeks, I think they enjoyed it. And then I learned on the field, we’re a dangerous team. We’re a team that can compete on the days like today, and we can play soccer when it’s necessary.”
“Coming out the window in a positive way, we still have work to do to get World Cup-ready and we’re going to use that the September window to finalize things,” said Berhalter. “But excited to see what this group can do at the World Cup.”