Lesson learned! Young USMNT humbled in World Cup qualifying opener as harsh CONCACAF realities emerge
In the days leading up to Thursday's World Cup qualifying opener, Tyler Adams set a goal for the U.S. men's national team this international break. He called for nine points from the opening three games to help kickstart the road to Qatar.
But, if he thought this would be easy, let Thursday's match serve as a reminder: nothing comes easy in CONCACAF.
The U.S. men's national team received a harsh introduction to the difficulties that may await. Featuring a lineup that includes players that regularly suit up for Barcelona, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, the U.S. began qualifying with a 0-0 draw against underdog El Salvador, starting its 14-game spring with an underwhelming result.
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And so, after just 90 minutes, Adams' ambition for this month went up in smoke. Let it be a lesson to this young group: the USMNT may be champions with two summer trophies to their name, they may have all the talent and potential in the world, but in this region, in this World Cup qualifying process, that won't guarantee success moving forward.
Is it a nightmare start? Definitely not. The old adage is to win at home and draw on the road, so with that in mind, job done. But given the lingering fears of last cycle, given the talent gap, given the circumstances, this felt like a missed opportunity.
In CONCACAF, it's not talent that always wins the day. So often it is desire and effort, both of which El Salvador matched on Thursday night.
Playing in a hostile Estadio Cuscalatan, the U.S. was welcomed to El Salvador and, ultimately, World Cup qualifying. In some ways, the build-up to the game was atypical, with Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie's status as Barcelona and Juventus players earning them cheers from the home crowd. But in others, it was entirely familiar from those that follow along, even if it was a new experience for this young group of players.
Greeted by fireworks, ole chants and repeated jeers from what was a packed home crowd, the U.S. was tested from the opening whistle. And, despite early moments of promise, they struggled to respond to those tests.
There were a few bright moments: some good sequences from Josh Sargent, a headed chance from Miles Robinson, a few good take-ons from Konrad de la Fuente. But those moments were few and far between as the U.S. struggled to find any sort of rhythm against an El Salvador team that looked plenty prepared despite its underdog status.
El Salvador's desire was matched by a few letdown performances from the U.S. side. Sergino Dest, playing at left-back, was active but very wasteful in a performance that should have him moved back to the more familiar right side. Gio Reyna was significantly quieter than Gregg Berhalter would have wanted, even if he did grow into the game a bit. And, generally, the U.S. was too slow, too indecisive, too poor to break El Salvador down.
Their best chance came late on through Kellyn Acosta, who was tossed into the game to provide some bite to the midfield in the second half. The Colorado Rapids star, one of the Gold Cup's big winners, smashed a header that was palmed away by goalkeeper Mario Antonio Martínez, depriving the U.S. of a winner.
The USMNT can finally break its winless road streak next week in Honduras, with Los Catrachos earning a point from their opening match away from home against Canada and at least on paper appearing beatable to Berhalter's side.
First up for the U.S., though, will be its qualifying home opener against the Canadians on Sunday as the Stars and Stripes look to energize their World Cup qualifying campaign.
Adams' nine-point target is out the window, but this gruelling road is only just beginning.