SANDY, Utah (Saturday, September 5, 2009) -- The United States men courted disaster, but recovered from an early deficit to defeat El Salvador 2-1 in a key CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying match before a near sellout of 19,066 today at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The U.S. gained an important three points in the six-nation final-round standings. A loss today would have put the Americans at an decided disadvantage with only one home match left in the three remaining qualifiers and four teams battling for three automatic bids to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. (The fourth-place team plays the fifth-best country from South America in a two-match playoff for another World Cup berth.
As it is, with Mexico stunning Coast Rica with a 3-0 road victory, the U.S. is second behind Honduras. Both are 4-2-1 with 13 points, but Honduras is first with a plus-7 goal differential to plus-4 for the Americans. Mexico and Coast Rica are a point pack at 4-3-0 with 12 points, though Mexico is plus-2 in goal differential to Costa Rica's minus-3.
The U.S. controlled the action for long portions of the match against El Salvador, but despite a number of opportunities, could not score a third goal for a safer lead. As a result, the Americans needed some last-minute heroics from goalkeeper Tim Howard to prevent a determined group of Salvadorians from drawing level at the end.
All the scoring came in the first half. Somewhat against the run of play, El Salvador opened the scoring in the 31st minute when midfielder Eliseo Quintanilla and lone striker Rodolfo Zelaya combined short passes to free the ball deep down the right side. Zelaya sent a high cross to midfield Christian Castillo, who stepped back from his defender and looped a header over Howard, who had cheated off his line and was caught in no man's land, sending El Salvador to a 1-0 lead in the 32nd minute.
U.S. came roaring back. After several near misses and a shot from forward Charlie Davies that was cleared off the goal-line, midfielder Clint Dempsey made up for the poor start with an equalizer in the 41st minute. everal Midfielder Landon Donovan sent a free kick from the right flank into the penalty area. El Salvador tried an offside trap, which caught three American attackers, but not Dempsey. He was onside and dove forward to blast a hard header past goalkeeper Miguel Montes for a 1-1 tie.
In first-half stoppage time, Donovan started another scoring opportunity with a left-side set piece, finding striker Jozy Altidore alone in the left center of the box. Unmarked, Altidore who rose up and rocketed a header past Montes just inside the near post for a 2-1 advantage.
"The best part of tonight was the response when we went down," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "It was a real strong response from everyone on the field and that says a lot about what these guys are all about."
Even though the last 45 minutes were scoreless, the second half was much more wide open with end-to-end action at times. The U.S. had numerous chances, but could not convert the elusive third goal.
"We had a better balance in the second half. We found our rhythm in the second half," Bradley said.
The second half featured a lovely goal by Altidore, who was put through by Dempsey, but which was strangely disallowed. It appears the call by Honduran referee Jose Pineda was a foul, but Bradley admitted he was mystified if it was a foul by Dempsey or by Altidore.
Altidore said he asked the referee about the play but got no answer. "He just shrugged," Altidore said.
Bradley had to make major changes in his back-line with both regular center backs out -- Oguchi Onyewu with a yellow-cards suspension and Jay DeMerit, with a groin strain he suffered in his last outing with Watford, his English club team. So Bradley moved Carlos Bocanegra back into the middle from left wing and paired him with Chad Marshall. Jonathan Spector was on the right side instead of Steve Cherundolo, possibly rested for Wednesday's qualifier in Trinidad and Tobago, and Jonathan Bornstein manned the left.
Bradley started an offensive-minded lineup with both Altidore and Davies on the front line. This gave the U.S. a pair of attackers rather than only one, along with a holding forward, such as Brian Ching. Combined with the two outside backs, Spector and Bornstein, who are both naturally inclined to push forward whenever possible, this gave the Americans a more offensive-minded set than has been seen recently.
Donovan proved again he is the U.S.'s most indispensable player, he made the difference today. He was ill and off his game when the Americans generated little attack in its last qualifier, a 2-1 loss to Mexico in Mexico City. Against El Salvador, Donovan was the dominant U.S. player with most of the offense moving through him and his free kicks created both goals.
The U.S. held on to win by one a match it probably should have won by multiple goals. Yet, with a little bit of luck, the victory might well have been much easier. Still, the U.S. continues on a road that ends in South Africa.