The United States was supposed to cruise through the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and into the U-20 World Cup. That wasn't the case and they ended up in a playoff, but a 2-0 win over El Salvador was enough to put the Americans into the World Cup.
The U.S. got goals from Ben Spencer and Paul Arriola, to go along with a penalty save by Zack Steffen, which proved to be more than enough for a World Cup spot. Now the U.S. is onto New Zealand in May, where they hope to do better than they did at the last World Cup, when they failed to win a match.
Both teams knew their World Cup lives were on the line and there were a bit of nerves early on. More importantly, the pitch was an absolute disaster and neither team could get the ball to roll decently.
The Americans started quickly and almost scored a minute in, but Tommy Thompson's shot rolled just wide. Then the U.S. did score, but the referee waved it off. He ruled there had been a foul just before the goal on Ben Spencer, who replays showed was only the victim of getting hit.
All throughout the first half, it was clear that the U.S. was better. El Salvador didn't even try to fight it, deciding that instead of playing soccer they would foul the Americans whenever the attack started. It was effective, but a goal always seemed likely and it came via Spencer. The big forward got on the end of a cross and while his header hit the crossbar, it came back to him and he nodded it into the open net.
With a goal in hand, the match looked all but over. El Salvador couldn't do a thing with the ball so the U.S. goal was never under threat and it only seemed like a matter of how many the Americans would score. Romain Gall had a couple chances, one off of a brilliant pass by Emerson Hyndman, but the ball bobbled on the horrible grass, and the U.S. let the Salvadorans hang around.
As dominant as the U.S. was, it was only a one-goal game and the Americans had been burned by an inability to put overmatched teams away earlier in the tournament. And in the 50th minute, the U.S. was whistled for a handball in the box. It looked like the U.S. was going to get burned again, but Steffen made a fabulous stop on the penalty to keep the U.S. in front.
The U.S. kept attacking and while they were unlucky, hitting the bar twice, they finally put the match away in the 67th minute. Junior Flores made a brilliant run down the right before crossing for Bradford Jamieson IV. His shot was saved, but the rebound fell to Paul Arriola, who buried the shot and sealed the Americans' trip to the U-20 World Cup.
El Salvador picked up a late red card, but the match was already over. The U.S. were the better side and while it was a bit dicey -- appropriate considering the Americans' bobbles all tournament and the danger they lived in from the very start -- they are World Cup-bound.