The U.S. squad squeaked by with a draw versus El Salvador, but the difficult game should send the team back to the drawing board for improvement.
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Being the tallest one in a room doesn't make that person a giant. In a similar realization of the semi-obvious, the tough draw the U.S. eked out versus El Salvador sends a clear signal that there might be no giants in CONCACAF at all.
Giants don't struggle to squash pesky, impertinent teams that bug like El Salvador.
Full credit to the hosts. Spurred on by seemingly the entire country, El Salvador's players came out charged, focused and hustling like mad after every ball. Their effort and dedication on both offense and defense gave the U.S. fits all game long.
Yet that was part of problem. Why was the U.S. squad being out-worked in the first place? Isn't that the hallmark of the team - or has Bob Bradley referred to "work" for so long that the word has become abstract and the team no longer practices the actual concept?
Every 50-50 ball in the match was seemingly won by an El Salvador player. Time and again, the U.S. players were caught ball-watching as the Salvadoreans were the ones making plays. The Americans seemed befuddled at the energy of their opponents. El Salvador finished with more corners than the U.S. - a clear evidence of which team was pushing harder all game long.
Back in his Chivas USA coaching days, Bob Bradley was asked once about a rival squad that defeated the MLS team in Open Cup action.
"Did the other team want it more?" Bradley was asked.
Bradley sized the reporter up coolly, then said simply, "No."
That response wouldn't hold up in this case, because the evidence was clear for the world to see. El Salvador did want it more and went after that ideal with a zeal that caught the Americans off-guard.
The U.S. may in fact be the better team, but the huge gap between the squads that some perceived simply does not exist.
As Landon Donovan pointed out, the Salvadoreans faltered not when they dared take the game to the U.S., but when they sacrificed their game shape and rhythm by playing to the clock too much, throwing themselves all over the field all to spend a few precious minutes.
"They had actually played a great game to that point," Donovan said. "They don't need to do that stuff."
What the U.S. needs to do is to shake off any remaining complacency about qualifying games against smaller teams.
It may be nearly a given that the U.S. will advance, but how that takes place could be the crucial factor. The U.S. isn't good enough to win games on sheer talent alone. What once characterized the American team was grit and never-say-die-pluck.
It wasn't missing entirely, though, because the U.S. players did manage to draw level eventually.
Don't call it a comeback, though. It was a wakeup call, one that the U.S. team would do well to continue to heed.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America