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USA v. El Salvador, 2022 World Cup Qualifier: What We Learned

The USMNT took a 1-0 win after a cold night in Columbus against El Salvador. Here’s what we learned.

El Salvador v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team took on El Salvador for a cold match in Columbus as part of World Cup qualifying, and walked away with a 1-0 victory. While it wasn’t the kind of dominant display that we were hoping, it’s still three points and puts the USMNT a step closer to qualifying for the World Cup.

For the US, the game was fairly frustrating. They were able to make a few chances in the first half, particularly a big chance for Jesús Ferreira to tap in that he couldn’t put on frame. In the second half, the US was able to take the lead after Antonee Robinson buried a loose ball in the box after a good chance from Tim Weah.

The most dangerous moment for El Salvador was a break away in the first half after Sergiño Dest gave the ball away in a bad spot, with the ball moving quickly across the field to Alex Roldan on the right wing. From there, A. Roldan took a shot that fizzed just wide.

Let’s stop for a second. That was El Salvador’s most threatening moment. There were 3 defenders back. The shot was from outside the box, trying to beat Matt Turner (you know, the one renowned as a shot stopper) by cutting across the face of goal to the far post. That’s a difficult shot for the best strikers in the world. While Alex Roldan is probably El Salvador’s best player, he’s Seattle Sounder’s right fullback, not an ace striker. Scoring from that shot would have been a serious golazo.

On the other hand, while the USMNT weren’t exactly running rampant, they were still getting a few shots in. The performance may have felt a bit stale, but in truth, it looked like a multi-goal performance, even if the scoreline doesn’t reflect it. Indeed, if Jesús Ferreira buried his tap in, we probably would have gotten a multi-goal scoreline.

Can of Sardines

So the big question for the match is, why did the USMNT, who are on paper major favorites over El Salvador, look so stale on the night? And I think the answer to that fundamentally rests with how El Salvador chose to play.

As is standard, the US lined up in a 4-3-3. El Salvador, in contrast, lined up with a 4-2-3-1. You can roughly see that from these pass maps.

Pass maps for United States v. El Salvador, retrieved from MLSsoccer.com.

The important thing to note for El Salvador is how many players they have in midfield. The wingers (numbers 15 & 17) have tucked in, creating what was essentially a five-man midfield. In contrast, the standard 4-3-3 that the USMNT plays features a 3-man midfield (though, as we can see from the pass map, that was distorted both as a counter and a result of El Salvador’s tactics). El Salvador paired that dense midfield with a clear pressing strategy. While the US had the ball in their own half and amongst the center backs, El Salvador didn’t aggressively try to win the ball back, what’s called a low block. But higher up the field, the Salvadorans used their numbers advantage and their organization to 1) block the initial pass, and 2) disrupt play through the middle. You can effectively see that with how the American midfield is basically pushed away from their natural central positions. Tyler Adams (4) was pushed back practically into the center back line, Yunus Musah (6) was similarly pushed back and to the left, and Weston McKennie (8) was pushed out to the right wing. As a result, you can see there’s a big hole in the middle of the field underneath the striker, Jesus Ferreira (20).

From El Salvador’s perspective, this made for a very effective defensive strategy. It’s not a new or innovative strategy. For a 10 year period of, say, 2005 – 2015, most of the teams across the world used this formation for that midfield dominance. However, that midfield superiority comes with a catch. It can be hard to score goals because you’ve pulled players away from the most dangerous parts of the field. Your wingers are tucked into a more defensive position and you have only one striker. As a result, a 4-2-3-1 can struggle to score goals. And that’s what we’ve seen from El Salvador, not just in this match, but across the Octagonal. They’ve only scored 4 goals out of 9 games, the worst out of all the teams in the round. They’ve put so many chips into their defensive effort and ability to hold possession that they’ve sacrificed their attack. As a result, when they played the US, they could thwart the Americans, but they couldn’t actually threaten them.

The American Plan

That was a lot about what El Salvador did, but what about the USMNT itself? What did the Americans set out to do? Well, the first issue to address is how to deal with the Salvadoran game plan. The USMNT normally controls midfield by using the midfield trio of McKennie, Musah, and Adams (MMA) to press and harry and grind down the opposition. As you’ve heard my say before, they are the wood chipper. But those three by themselves weren’t enough to break through El Salvador; they were just outnumbered. So we then have to look to compensate. And there are hints of that in the line up.

I think at this point it’s pretty clear who Gregg Berhalter considers his first choice in most positions on the field. You’ve got MMA in midfield, Zack Steffen in goal, Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest at left and right fullback respectively, and Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah on the left and right wings respectively. Center back is a rotating choice between Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman, and Miles Robinson (John Brooks looks to be left out in the cold, though given how effective the center back choices thus far have been, perhaps that’s not actually that big a deal). Thus far, it seemed like Ricardo Pepi had the inside track at striker, but for this match v. El Salvador, Berhalter brought on Jesús Ferreira instead.

Now, why did Berhalter play Ferreira?

If the USMNT is going to be outnumbered in midfield, how can you bolster the numbers in your favor? Well, you can play a striker who will tuck back into midfield, what’s commonly called a false-9. That’s exactly what Ferreira does. While his miss in front of goal in the first half will stand out in everyone’s minds, Ferreira did actually do quite a lot dropping into midfield. And it helped stabilize things a lot. Basically, Ferreira helped mitigate that big gap between in the middle of the field that I mentioned earlier. After he left, things got a bit murkier for the US during possession, though the facts that the game was getting chippier, El Salvador needed to push and score again, and that the cold was setting all also contributed to the morass.

That is a long-winded way of saying that the false-9 (though both Berhalter and Ferreira would complain about that label) worked. That said, I don’t like false-9 set ups. Unless you have Lionel Messi or Francesco Totti or Robin van Persie, I don’t think it’s worth it. And I would prefer not to see it to start games. The big problem with false-9’s is the fact that you pulled your striker, the focal point of your attack, away from goal. When the striker drops deep, you need someone who is willing to make a run forward and occupy the space that the striker vacated. Tim Weah did that; you can see that he’s got the most advanced position for the USMNT. I’ve called him a wide forward before and it’s because of how he picks his runs and becomes kind of like a second striker. For this game, that was clear, with almost all of our biggest chances coming through Weah, including the goal. What happened there was that McKennie, out on the right side in his own half, looked and saw a congested midfield. And he also saw Weah making an early run to get in behind. McKennie put in a dinked ball over the top that Weah got onto and made a chance out of. That initial pass and run in behind the defense broke the Salvadoran organization so badly that, while the initial shot didn’t go in, the USA was still able to take advantage of the spilled ball and score. That kind of stretching play from the wingers was vital to winning the game.

Which brings us to the other winger on the field.

We’ve got a Christian Pulisic Problem

For me, the only US player on the field who put in a bad performance on the night was Christian Pulisic.

Which, you know, is a problem considering he’s ostensibly our best attacking player. The bigger problem is that this appears to be a trend. With the exception of specific moments (like the goals vs. Mexico in the Nations League and in qualifiers), Pulisic has been ineffective for, at this point, two years. What made Pulisic so dangerous for club and country earlier in his career was how dangerous he could be, especially in the final third. When he’s at his best, he makes a range of different attacking moves, whether it is dribbling through players, or getting in behind, or making late runs into dangerous places. He could use his dangerous runs, his technical ability, and his pace to blow defensive wide open.

However, we’ve not really been getting that version of Pulisic with the national team for a while. For the most part, all Pulisic does now is tuck inside from the wing and ask for the ball at his feet. He then tries to dribble past a slew of defenders before getting hacked down. It’s not been effective.

I mentioned above that the USMNT took on El Salvador’s packed midfield by dropping Ferreira into midfield to help with the numbers. That’s only part of how you beat a packed midfield. You also need to stretch the field, both horizontally and vertically. You stretch the field horizontally by moving the ball across the field left and right, using your wingers for width. And you stretch the ball vertically by playing attackers in so they can get behind the defense. Pulisic did neither. And that was a big problem. Instead, he tucked in from the left and drove into the most congested place on the field.

Part of the problem is just how much Pulisic’s missed with the national team. He missed out at the last stage of the Nations League group stage, when the US beat Canada. When the team came back after the suspension of international play due to the Covid Pandemic, Pulisic missed out. He played during the friendlies in the subsequent spring, and again in the Nation’s League. Then, he was out with injury and Covid at the start of qualifying, making only limited appearances. That’s it over two years. At the same time, the national team’s changed tremendously. Aside from Weston McKennie, Pulisic’s barely played with anyone else on this national team. Everyone else either became a big part of the national team during the period where he’s mostly been missing, or, in the case of Adams, was out injured in 2019. And that unfamiliarity is having consequences on the field.

But it’s also the case that Pulisic is trying to do too much. I don’t know whether that’s because of that same chemistry problem, or because Pulisic’s so used to being in the position of having to carry the team, perhaps a bit of both. But either way, the fact that he’s constantly putting himself into positions where he has to beat the opposition single handedly is an issue. Because the truth is that the team has progressed to where they don't need Pulisic to function anymore. In 2017, the team’s attack lived and died with Pulisic. But in 2022, we are getting goals from Weah and McKennie and Robinson. We are still scoring even when Pulisic’s not on the field or isn't at his best. Now, when Pulisic puts the team on his shoulders and tries to do too much, it hurts the team. What we really need is for him to get consistent and just focus on doing the basic things well. Because he’s good at them.

And freaking get out of Chelsea. Chelsea keeps changing their manager and keeps buying shiny, expensive new attackers, and it’s not helping Pulisic.

Closing Thoughts

That’s nine games without scoring from a set piece. Actually, if you include the friendly v. Bosnia, that’s 10 straight without scoring from a corner, free kick, or penalty. I’m going to keep pointing it out because this is supposed to be a strength for the USMNT. Through the whole summer, the attack lived on set pieces (between the Gold Cup and Nations League finals, we scored four goals — ALL 4 goals — against Mexico off of set pieces). But now, we can’t get one at all. On the one hand, the team has clearly gotten more well rounded, finding more reliable ways to score. But on the other hand, it would be awfully helpful if the team could score from a corner or free kick once in a while. The good news is that Pulisic’s delivery was good. So, hopefully that can continue through the coming games and actually give us a goal.

Shout out to Alex Roldan and coach Hugo Pérez, the Salvadoran Americans on the team. They put out a good performance. I think they should be proud for how they’ve represented their country, both El Salvador and the United States.

To celebrate a (seemingly) completed deal to Arsenal, Matt Turner showed off the fact that he’s actually competent with the ball at his feet.

Congratulations to Turner on the move, hope it works out both for him and for Arsenal. As for his passing... he was fine vs. El Salvador. I think Zack Steffen is still stronger in his passing. But, while I think goalkeepers with strong passing skills is useful, I don’t think it’s critical. The one thing about Turner that makes me nervous is his command of the box, and that’s based on just one game (away v. Panama). Turner wasn’t tested in that area (or any area, really) for this match, anyway. I think Turner remains a pretty great option for the USMNT, whether as the starter or the back up.

Antonee Robinson knows how to celebrate goals. I mean look at this absolute glorious three-part celebration.

First, you’ve got the backflip. Look, I’m a big sucker for a flip-celebration. They are big, flashy, and classic. If you can safely pull off a backflip, go for it! But the young Jedi took that moment to elevate his celebration to yet greater heights. There’s that brief moment where you can see on his face “Oh no! Something’s Wrong with my hamstring!” That look lasts exactly long enough for the attentive watcher to register concern, before moving right along into part three, where he just walks off his faked injury with an exuberant strut. As I said, glorious. The rest of the team should take note. Except for McKennie, who’s got his signature magic wand, the rest of this squad needs to really get their celebration game up.

We are on the cusp of qualifying. Remember, the objective isn’t to rack up goals against smaller teams. It’s to qualify for the World Cup later this year. And with this win, the USMNT inches closer to sealing that deal.


That’s it from me. As always, we want to know what your thoughts. What do you think I got right? What do you think I missed? Let’s talk in the comments below.