El Salvador seeking to put difficult period in past at 2017 Gold Cup

Rodolfo Zelaya El Salvador
Jewel Samad
After giving fans little to cheer about since a 2013 match manipulation scandal, La Selecta hopes to win back confidence in this year's tournament

A Rodolfo Zelaya-powered El Salvador got out of its Gold Cup group in 2013, getting into the knockout stages before suffering a heavy defeat against the United States. Four years later, it's tempting to think things haven't changed that much. "Fito" is once again leading the line and El Salvador's goal is to get out of the group and hope for a better matchup this time.

But the last four years have been full of turmoil for Salvadoran soccer. Just months after the loss to the U.S., more than a dozen players were given lifetime bans for match manipulation in international games dating back to 2010. Others, including Zelaya, were suspended for less time for less severe involvement.

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The 2017 Gold Cup is a chance for La Selecta to break through and find a positive result in a competition for the first time since the scandal. 

"It’s a very difficult topic, one that has taken our fans’ confidence away and a painful topic for us as players and for the fans as well. But this is a thing of the past," midfielder Darwin Ceren told Goal. "I think we’ve overcome this stage, and that’s the most important thing, that we overcome it. Now, we’re confident in the group that’s here, we’re confident that we’re doing things well for our good."

Ceren, who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes, is one of a core group of El Salvador players based in the United States who has benefited from the growth of MLS, NASL and USL. Now the Gold Cup is viewed as a shop window, where players based in El Salvador's domestic league can showcase their talents and, most in the Salvadoran soccer community hope, can catch the eye of a team in North America or Europe.

There's no doubt that Zelaya was one of those players. After a standout showing in 2011 he had many MLS teams interested but ended up staying with Alianza before embarking on a loan spell to Russia. In 2013, there was yet more interest in the dynamic striker but his one-year ban in 2013 and subsequent lack of fitness ended any hope of a move abroad. The 29-year-old is once again showing good form now, though, and new manager Eduardo Lara couldn't ignore the once-banned player. 

Zelaya's inclusion was controversial, with Ceren among those speaking out against including any player involved in the scandal in the national team. But the team looks to be playing well with him in the roster. Zelaya scored in two of El Salvador's three preparation friendly games.

Darwin Ceren El Salvador

"It was really hard, truly, because they’re situations that can’t happen in a national team. For me, it’s something that shouldn’t have happened. It was a really difficult period," Ceren said. "But now, I also respect the decisions the manager makes, as he’s the one who makes the decisions.

"Now we’re on the field and we hope things go well for us. We’re also alert, we’re waiting to be together and we’re working to be more transparent which is needed for the good of the spot. We’re working hard, trusting our teammates, trusting that things are going to go well so we might be able to recover once and for all from this black mark on the national team. We hope things already have gotten better and that we can win something important in this tournament to help our fans believe in us again."

That could take more than just a handful of wins for a team that has won just five of its 32 matches played since January 2015. With Mexico, El Salvador's first opponent, the favorite to win Group C, the second group game against Curacao takes on added importance. It was the current Caribbean champion who El Salvador beat in both legs to get into the fourth round of World Cup qualification before Mexico and Honduras ended their run at that stage.

It was also during that stage in 2016 where a group of players came forward and said they had been offered cash to manipulate the result of a game against Canada, one in which an El Salvador loss would've secured Honduras' qualification to the Hex. While that result eventually would come to pass, the players' news conference before the game to call out the approach helped win back plenty of supporters.

Lara, a Colombian coach who likes his team to apply pressure and win back balls early, knows this tournament will not be an easy one for his team. That adversity, though, is something that he's hoping helps his side this month.

"We've come to give our soul for the national team. All that's left is to wait for a beautiful game (Sunday)," he said in a news conference Saturday. "For us, it's motivation to have to face the current champion of the Gold Cup."

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That attitude is what El Salvador hopes once again gets it out of the first round, something it failed to do in a more forgiving group in 2015, and give its fans both at home and the sizeable number of Salvadorans in the U.S. something to cheer about after several years of hardship. 

"I think we have to trust in ourselves, in the skills we have as players, have faith in what the coaching staff wants and what they want to do with the group," Ceren said. "Beyond that, I think we have ambition as players to achieve something important in this tournament. We’re convinced that we have good players, we’re working well together and we’re convinced we can do something important. We’re going to work hard to do that to be able to get something from this Gold Cup."