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USA vs. El Salvador, 2022 Concacaf Nations League: What we learned

We look at what we can take from the mud of San Salvador.

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El Salvador v United States Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team toughed out a 1-1 draw against El Salvador on Tuesday night in their second match of the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League group stage. As it turned out, they got caught in a bit of a storm down in San Salvador, with the match being played on a rain-soaked field that quickly devolved into a mud patch.

From the outset, it didn’t look like we’d learn a whole lot from this one. El Salvador may be a decent team, but they aren’t World Cup caliber and the USMNT’s already played them twice within the last year. But as it turned out, this game had something to offer. In the 35th minute, Alexander Larín caught the USMNT goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, cheating his line and nailed a ball into the near corner. The US was now down 1-0.

From there, the USMNT had to battle back against not just a stout Salvadoran defense, but also the weather, the mud, and uneven officiating. It seemed like the goal might not come... but then it did. Jordan Morris got on the end of a late ball into the box from Luca de la Fuente and headed it into the net in the 91st minute. 1-1 was the final score, and there was a fair bit learned.

An Actually Useful Match?

Against Grenada, I complained about how the fixture got in the way of the USMNT’s World Cup preparations. And, for this match vs. El Salvador, I was ready to continue that complaint, albeit, to a more modest extent. El Salvador is not a terrible opponent. Specifically, their coach, former USMNT player Hugo Pérez, has done an excellent job of crafting a disciplined and organized team. When they played the USMNT in World Cup qualifying, they held up well, with a 0-0 draw in El Salvador and a 1-0 win for the US at home. However, this is still not a World Cup caliber opponent. While El Salvador can defend, they don’t have much firepower at all. Out of 14 games of qualifying, they scored a measly 8 goals. For the USMNT, this looked like an exercise in breaking down a defensive team on the road, at least on paper. In reality, adversity turned a meager test into a good one.

When the US fell behind a goal in the first half, it wasn’t clear that they would be able to get themselves back level. Between the mud and the resolute Salvadoran defense, the Americans hadn’t gotten very many chances whatsoever. But the team hung in there and kept going. They didn’t quit after the goal. They didn’t quit after missing some chances. They didn’t quit when Paul Arriola was sent off. They kept the numbers up in the attack and went for the equalizer, until, finally, they got it.

Take a look at this rough depiction of where most of the players were when Luca de la Torre put in the cross for the equalizing goal:

The entire El Salvador team (in blue) is back, in place after defending a corner (both teams were down to 10 players at this time due to red cards). The US is similarly pushed up, with 8 players in the box. Some of that is just because they had just taken a corner and numbers had pushed up. But the important thing is that those numbers stayed up. With play recycled out to the left wing, the US kept 5 players in the box, players who made a point to get onside. After the corner broke down and the USMNT recycled play to the left, El Salvador tried to get back into their defensive shape. You can see that with the clear sets of lines for attack, midfield, and defense.

But the US attackers kept their place, creating an overload in front of the box when the ball came in. Notice, there’s 5 American players directly in front of the goal, while only 3 Salvadoran defenders. One attacker went to the near post (post closer to de la Torre), Pulisic drove towards the back post, and two (including Morris) challenged for the ball. The attack covered all their options and outnumbered the opposition in the important places on the field. This wasn’t a desperate hail mary play, but a targeted and organized attack. The USMNT didn’t get lucky on the goal, the crafted it through intelligent play and perseverance.

I strongly believe that every World Cup opponent needs to be approached with respect (lest you be humbled), but I honestly do not believe that Wales, the USMNT’s first opponent at this year’s World Cup, are a particularly strong side. I think the US can — and should — beat them. But things don’t always go your way in soccer. Sometimes, things go wrong. When that adversity comes up, a good team finds a way to get back into the game. Like El Salvador, Wales is primarily a defensive team. They have a few stellar attacking players in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but their game plan is to poach a goal and use their adversity to hold the score. Wales will be a degree more talented than El Salvador, but they don't bring the same kind of CONCACAF energy — or adversity — that we saw on Tuesday. As much as Wales might want otherwise, they can’t force the opponent to run through mud. But as it turned out, the USMNT can handle that adversity. They can get themselves back into a game. And that’s a good sign for the World Cup.

On paper, a 1-1 draw against a weaker team doesn’t feel good. But a 1-1 draw with a last minute goal after a game where everything seemed to be going against you feels great. This isn’t the kind of game where the result really mattered. It was the kind of game where the effort mattered, where the energy and the mood coming out of it mattered. From that standpoint, the USMNT got something positive out of this.

Parting Waters

I think basically everyone is applauding Yunus Musah for how he played vs. El Salvador. And, you know what? I’ll do the same here. He was my Man of the Match. The way he controlled the ball on the dribble, despite the wretched conditions, was unbelievable. But it was not just his ball control that was impressive. Rather, Musah went in and attacked in a way we’ve not seen from him before.

First, he drove into the final third before having a give-and-go with Tim Weah for the best scoring opportunity up to that point.

Then, Musah had a similar give-and-go with Jesus Ferreira to force the red card on El Salvador for a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

We’ve seen for a while now that Yunus Musah is adept in his control of the ball and his passing. We’ve seen him regularly hold off defenders on the dribble. But that’s usually been in service of holding onto the ball during possession, not actually attacking. You could give Musah the ball in midfield and he’d either be able to hold it even while being pressed, or force a foul, giving time for the rest of the team to get into shape. But what he didn’t really do was drive into the attack while on the ball. That was the big knock on him, that he wasn’t goal dangerous. He’s yet to score a goal for the national team, despite being on the verge of his 20th cap (most of them starts). And if you told me that you could count the number of shots he took in World Cup qualifying on your hands, I'd frankly believe you (hm, I should look that up...). But here, he took on the responsibility of driving the game forward.

I’m not sure exactly what prompted the change. Perhaps it’s legitimately just growth. But it could have to do with circumstances in this particular match. Berhalter tinkered with the shape and formation constantly because of the game states and the field conditions. At times, they were in a 4-2-3-1, at other times, a 4-4-2, and in the second half, it may have become that familiar 4-3-3. Perhaps that empty space in front of him prompted Musah to try and take that space? Perhaps it was the urgency of the moment, with the US down a goal? I’m not sure. But it’s a good sign of where Musah, who won’t even turn 20 until after the World Cup kicks off, will grow. I most certainly hope it becomes a regular part of his game.

Can’t Quite Get it Wright

Haji Wright may have lost a chance at a World Cup roster spot after this one.

Berhalter’s normally quite cagey about criticizing his own players, but he really signaled Wright out for this one.

I would agree that Wright didn’t really do a lot while he was on the field in the first half. Wright only had one shot, which he put well wide of goal. Excluding one or two moments of good hold-up play, Wright was largely a non-presence in possession. And he was a non-factor on set pieces, despite his height and build.

However, even with the poor performance, I personally would want another look at Wright. I chalk up a lot of the problems to this being his first camp and to the abysmal playing conditions. In contrast, it appears Berhalter’s taking a lot more out of this. A lot of it is probably from what he’s seen over training and the preceding few games (where, penalty goal aside, Wright did not particularly shine), but it’s still surprising to me that Berhalter would be so forth right. It looks like Ferreira has the inside track (yeah, he’s not scoring buckets either, but look at that pass to Musah to win the red card), with the other spot (or maybe two) up for grabs. For the September friendlies, I expect to see the return of Ricardo Pepi, along with another face or two, a final chance to find someone that clicks with the team.

Closing Thoughts

El Salvador were missing probably their best player, Alex Roldan. Roldan is, of course, a Salvadoran American who plays for the Seattle Sounders (along with his brother, US international Cristian Roldan). Alex Roldan chose to skip this match due to a conflict between the players and the federation. I would have preferred to have Alex in the game. I’d still prefer to see more Americans representing at the international level, even if they’re not playing for the USMNT. It just says all the more about our own national soccer scene.

The USMNT conceded off of a bad mistake from Ethan Horvath. It was the only shot El Salvador put on target, and Horvath was completely caught at the near post, cheating off his line in anticipation for a cross. Most people think about goalkeeping as a position that’s all about reaction time and the acrobatics. But in reality, it’s a subtle art of being in the right place at the right time. If Horvath is at the near post — as he should have been — this looks like an incredibly unthreatening shot, albeit, one hit with a fair bit of venom. It would have been yet another save, nothing out of the ordinary at all. Instead, it was a goal that put the USMNT into a major hole.

Just a year ago, Horvath was a hero for how he came on and played in the Nations League final victory over Mexico. It would have been unthinkable that he would missed the World Cup. But this is the kind of mistake that really stands out, that undermines one’s reputation and self esteem. It might have just cost Horvath that spot, especially considering how well Sean Johnson played v. Uruguay just a little bit ago.

Paul Arriola’s red card was perhaps unlucky, but he should really know better than that by now. This is CONCACAF; if you go flying in like that, there’s a major risk of a sending off. The referring is inconsistent and can punish the USMNT harshly while ignoring the antics of other nations. There's absolutely no need to take that risk in the oppositions box. To go lunging in with legs all over the place makes it worse. The good news is that Arriola’s suspension seems unlikely to have major ramifications.

Credit to Jordan Morris for the goal. I know I talked a bit about it already, but I wanted to emphasize how good of a moment it was for Morris specifically. In the comments section of my Grenada recap, I said I wasn’t impressed with how Morris played. Well, Morris came and struck back against that sentiment in the best way possible. His positioning and awareness on the goal are quite good, but he absolutely dominates over his defender for the shot. One of the big strengths for Morris has long been how aggressively he attacks the goal. He’s not the most graceful or flashy attacker, but he’s good at finding and exploiting space. And that was on show for the goal.

There are a few players who I want to see in the September friendly. That will be the last chance to take a look at players before the World Cup, as there won’t another international window for the full roster to get together until they are already in Qatar. I mentioned taking a look at some options at striker, particularly Jeremy Ebobisse and Brandon Vazquez. I also want to see some options at midfield. Djordje Mihailovic missed out from this camp due to a minor last-minute injury. I’d like to see him get that look. I’d also like to see Paxton Pomykal get a look. Finally, I want to see someone else get a final look at left back since the options in this camp didn’t really shine. That could be a new face, like Kevin Paredes, or it could be the return of someone like Sam Vines.

Reports are pointing to the USMNT playing Saudi Arabia and Japan in Germany and Spain for those two September matches. If that turns out to be the case, it should be a decent set of final warm up matches. Saudi Arabia is ranked as one of the weakest teams in the World Cup, while Japan are more middle-of-the pack, comparing more closely to Morocco. These should be good match ups to gain confidence while still facing off against opposition of a relevant caliber.

I want to close by sharing this exceptional article from the Athletic about the life and disappearance of former USMNT player, Wee Willie McLean. As the article explains, McLean was a standout left winger in the 1930s and was a member of the 1934 USMNT World Cup squad. But some years after, he just disappeared. The journalists at the Athletic, Pablo Maurer and Matt Pentz, tracked down exactly what happened to Wee Willie. And they uncovered, not just a story about a forgotten piece of American soccer history, but a tragic and heartbreaking story about 20th century America and mental illness.

That’s it from me. What did you think about the game? Give us your thoughts in the comments section down below!