SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Any hope the United States men’s national team had of using Tuesday’s CONCACAF Nations League game against El Salvador as a quasi-dress rehearsal for the FIFA World Cup faded away when the team arrived at Cuscatlan Stadium for training Monday night.
They were aware the forecast called for rain, but minutes into the first warm-up drill, it became clear the field wasn’t going to hold up. Even light jogging left mud tracks in the previously undisturbed grass, and that was before the rain really started to come down.
“We saw the conditions, saw how it was gradually getting worse and knew at game time it wasn’t going to be good,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I can only say that I’m really proud of the guys, the way they embraced that.”
It wasn’t exactly an ideal scenario for a team fully focused on preparing for a tournament in Qatar, where the annual average precipitation is roughly 3 inches. Instead, the team received a final dose of CONCACAF madness, where skill and precision were trumped by grit and emotion in a 1-1 draw.
A Jordan Morris header in the first of six minutes of stoppage time rescued the result for the U.S. — extending its unbeaten streak against El Salvador to 20 games — but not before each team was issued a red card, El Salvador employed an array of time-wasting tactics, and chaos reigned supreme.
It was clear from the opening kickoff that neither team was going to attempt to build much from the back, instead opting to bypass the sloppy terrain with long balls.
“We thought after the warm-up that it would best suit us to play long,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “I think with Haji [Wright] in the game, it suits him as well to hold the ball up, link up play like that.”
For Wright, the game was supposed to be his big audition. Starting between Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah, a convincing performance could have made an impact on his World Cup roster chances or perhaps even earn consideration for a meaningful role. Instead, his involvement was minimal and he was subbed for Jesus Ferreira at halftime.
“It’s always difficult when players get an opportunity and don’t fully capitalize on it,” Berhalter said. “It’s not nice for a coach. It’s not nice for the player. It’s not nice for the group. We were all rooting for Haji to be a force. We purposely played more direct in the first half because we thought he could be the force that would unsettle them. And it just wasn’t his night tonight.
“It doesn’t rule him out for anything in the future. We don’t work like that. Now it’s about him going back to his club and continuing to score goals and do his thing. It was an unlucky night for him tonight, for sure.”
Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath had a similar opportunity. He made his first start in a U.S. shirt in more than a year but was caught out of position on Alex Larin’s 35th-minute goal. Beyond that moment, Horvath wasn’t really tested and will head back to Europe no closer to earning a place in Qatar.
After a steady rain during the first half, it dissipated in the second, which, coupled with El Salvador’s lack of defensive pressure in midfield, led to a shift in approach. The U.S. limited the long balls — choosing to build out its attack — and the initial results were encouraging. Yunus Musah was particularly impressive on the ball, as one of the few players who seemed unencumbered by the conditions.
“It was definitely fun,” Musah said. “When we came out of halftime for the second half, I just told Tim [Weah] that, ‘Yo, let’s just enjoy this. There’s not many matches that are like this, so let’s just enjoy it.’ And, yeah, we definitely did.”
One passing sequence Musah was involved with led to the game’s best chance, but his shot was saved from nearly point-blank range. Being more clinical in front of goal, he said, is something he plans to work on and thinks can take him to another level as a player.
“I was a little bit hesitant thinking about his skill set and how that was going to work today, but he took advantage of the dribble for sure,” Berhalter said. “Under poor field conditions, sometimes that can slow you down, and he was tremendous today. If there was a man of the match, we’d probably give it to him.”
Paul Arriola replaced Weah on the right wing on the hour mark but lasted just nine minutes before being sent off with a straight red card for a slide tackle in the El Salvador box. That’s when the game truly went off the rails. A fight nearly broke out when Adams earned a yellow card after tossing an opponent to the ground in the 76th minute before El Salvador’s Ronald Rodriguez was sent off in the 79th minute when he took down Musah, who was in on goal.
With the teams playing 10 vs. 10, an already discombobulated game veered even further away from the norm. The U.S. was desperate to score a goal, while El Salvador took every opportunity to preserve the win, which would have been its second against the United States all-time, and first since 1992.
The U.S. could have easily packed it in, too. Had Berhalter removed Pulisic from the game as a means of preservation, few would have taken issue. The idea of the Chelsea star — or anyone else, really — getting injured on a muddy field chasing a result in a Nations League group game was terrifying for many U.S. fans watching at home.
Competitive instinct overruled precaution, and the U.S. performance wasn’t lacking for effort. When Luca de la Torre’s cross found Morris’ head for the tying goal, the celebration spoke volumes. The bench emptied. This mattered.
“One, it was Jordan scoring and I think that, for me at least, this kind of marked his comeback after all over overcoming all the injuries that and really showing the impact that it has on this group,” Adams said. “But also this means a lot to us. We want to win another trophy and as a young group, we don’t get many opportunities to do that. We’re taking it seriously. I think that showed.”
If there’s a takeaway for what Tuesday’s game means for the World Cup, it must be about the team’s mentality. From a tactical standpoint, the field and rain made for mostly a pointless exercise, but the team’s ability to respond when faced with difficult circumstances points to a quality that not all teams have.
“To see that from this group, to see the resiliency from this young group, the way they fought, we’re really proud of that,” Berhalter said. “Although we didn’t get the win, I think it’s a good takeaway and a good end to the June camp. It really brought the guys together in a good way.”
After flying back to Miami early Wednesday morning, the players will go their separate ways, with 2½ months before they reassemble in Europe for the final pair of friendlies ahead of their opening game of the World Cup against Wales on Nov. 21.