(Sunday, March 29, 2009) -- The United States men came from behind to erase a two-goal deficit and draw 2-2 with El Salvador in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying before 30,500 delirious fans yesterday at Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador.
In regional qualifying, the U.S. rarely has had to work so hard for a point in the standings, but with defender Frankie Hejduk's equalizing header in the 88th minute, the Americans (1-0-1) are alone in first place with four points in the six-nation, 10-match round robin. Next for the U.S. is Trinidad and Tobago Wednesday at LP Field in Nasheville, a 7:30 p.m. (ET) match televised by ESPN2 and Spanish-language Galavision.
What's difficult to decipher is whether Americans should be greatly concerned about how poorly they played for the opening 70 minutes, or elated about their gutsy comeback after that.
"El Salvador played with a tremendous about of energy and it was our challenge to match it," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "When we found ourselves behind, it took a great effort from our players to fight back and come away with a point. We prepared for this game knowing that El Salvador would be difficult. We found ourselves behind and that was not part of the plan, and at that point the team spirit and mentality paid off."
Bradley had to make three important lineup changes. He substituted Brad Guzan for suspended goalkeeper Tim Howard (yellow cards), used Danny Califf in the central defense instead of slightly injured Oguchi Onyewu (slight knee sprain), and gave Hejduk the start on the right side of defense with Steve Cherundolo sidelined with a strained right hip.
The result was the U.S. backline was out of sync all night. Not really pressured all that much, the Americans gave up two very bad goals mainly because players were out of position.
Just as bad as the defensive confusion for more than the first hour was disorganization of the U.S. attack. El Salvador's Mexican coach, Carlos de los Cobos had his team playing extremely defensively right from the start, allowing the Americans pretty much unchallenged possession in their own end, but then attacking the ball aggressively and in numbers when the U.S. crossed the center stripe. The plan was to look for a quick counterattack off a turnover when the U.S. might be out of position.
That's what happened on the first Salvadorian goal in the 15th minute. U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who had an awful night overall, gave up possession to opposing striker Eliseo Quintanilla, who quickly played the ball out to the right flank to Osael Romero. Romero pushed it up to Rodolfo Zelaya with both U.S. central defenders -- Califf and Carlos Bocanegra -- rushing out to confront him. He beat both and gave the ball back to the middle to Romero. In the meantime Quintanilla rushed past the scrambling defense, took a short pass from Romero and slotted the ball under an advancing Guzan.
The sequence was a brilliant passing exhibition with a quality finish, but it was made possible by the wholesale disorganization of the U.S. back-line.
From the onset, well into the second half, the U.S. tried time and again to either to force the ball through the crowded middle or pass it over the top with long balls from the back, with little result. In the 62nd minute, Bradley made an important move that did not pay immediate dividends when he replaced left back Heath Pearce with forward Jozy Altidore, going from a 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3 with Beasley assuming more defensive responsibility of the left side.
The move initially backfired when Beasley, clearly not a defender, allowed a ball to be crossed into the penalty area in the 72nd minute. With neither of the U.S. central defenders in position, El Salvador midfielder Cristian Castillo outjumped a scrambling Hejduk to head the ball under Guzan and on one hop into the net for a 2-0 advantage.
Then Hejduk took over. In the 77th minute, he beat defenders down the right side and sent a perfect cross to the far post where Altidore headed it home. Eleven minutes later, Hejduk was first to a bouncing ball in the box and flicked a hard header into the left side of the net to make it 2-2.
In the U.S.'s defense, Estadio Cuscatlán is as difficult a venue for a visiting team as any in the region and El Salvador is probably the most improved team in CONCACAF, with players like Quintanilla and defender Alfredo Pacheco maturing and with younger potential stars, such as Zelaya, Romero and Castillo emerging.