As exhilarating as last month's 2-0 win over Mexico was for the U.S. men's national team, it likely didn't take much for head coach Bob Bradley to squelch any lingering euphoria as the team gathered in Miami this week. In fact, I'll venture that all it took for Bradley to get his charges to resume their laser-like focus was to utter the words "El Salvador, away."
Are the Blues the weakest team in the Hexagonal? Probably. Are the Americans heavy favorites to triumph against El Salvador (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360) this Saturday? Without question. But that doesn't mean the proceedings at the Estadio Cuscatlán will be straightforward. True, the Americans own a 2-0-1 record against the Cuscatlecos in World Cup qualifiers played outside the U.S., and they're 2-1-2 all-time in San Salvador. But despite these marks, the Americans know a difficult night -- similar to their 1-0 win at Guatemala in the semifinal round -- awaits them. After all, we're talking about a venue where the behavior of the fans in last month's 2-2 draw with Trinidad & Tobago led FIFA to impose over $25,000 in fines to the El Salvadoran Football Federation.
"The crowd's going to be noisy, and no one really knows what the field conditions are going to be like," said defender Frankie Hejduk, who played in the Americans' 2-0 win in San Salvador back in 2004. "It's going to be tough; it's going to be physical with lots of fouls, in typical World Cup qualifying fashion."
One way the Americans could dictate the pace and take the partisan crowd out of the match is to duplicate their Mexico game plan and press El Salvador high up the field. Against "El Tri," that tactic limited the influence of midfield linchpin Pavel Pardo, and made it difficult for the side to find any rhythm in attack.
On this occasion, a similar approach could serve to blunt the effectiveness of El Salvador danger-men Eliseo Quintanilla and Osael Romero. Of course, it's one thing to apply such pressure when spurred on by a home crowd. It's quite another to do so on the road.
"We have a style of play that always makes it hard on teams, especially through midfield," said U.S. attacker Landon Donovan. "But at the end of the day, the team gets a sense of how the game is flowing, and if we feel that momentum is going our way, then we're going to play like we're the home team and make it difficult for them.
"If in spots of the game it's not going as easily, then we have the ability to play a different way and be a little safer. But for the most part we want to be aggressive and make them stay at our level."
Complicating matters is the fact that El Salvador head coach Carlos de los Cobos has instilled a disciplined, defense-first mentality into his side that doesn't require them to take the initiative in attack. And when El Salvador does get the ball, they will look to break out of their 4-5-1 formation with quick, short passes, the better to utilize the talents of Quintanilla, Romero, and lone striker Rudis Corrales.
But given the form of Michael Bradley, opting for an aggressive approach is a risk worth taking. The Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder has been excelling for both club and country ever since the Bundesliga returned from its winter break in January. And it was Bradley's unwavering pressure on Pardo that keyed the U.S. victory over Mexico. If coach Bradley opts to partner his young midfielder with Pablo Mastroeni, that would provide plenty of midfield muscle, although the risk of conceding lots of set pieces is something the U.S. will need to be aware of. It was Romero who rescued El Salvador's opening game against T&T by twice scoring off free kicks, and if Mastroeni plays, the team might miss the attacking upside provided by Sacha Kljestan.
Certainly some offensive firepower will be needed, and the Americans will look to the likes of Donovan and Clint Dempsey to provide it. While Dempsey has been in solid form for club side Fulham, Donovan's fortunes have been a bit more up and down. His disappointing loan stint with Bayern Munich has seen him return to the Los Angeles Galaxy, but in last weekend's season opener, his two goals, including a well-taken equalizer, helped rally his team to a 2-2 tie with D.C. United.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. El Salvador
San Salvador, El Salvador
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
"There was a little transition coming back, and having not played 90 minutes in a while was an issue," Donovan said. "But now that [the Galaxy] have played a preseason game and the D.C. game, I really feel good. And having a week here to train will help a lot too."
Defensively, the big question is: Who will man the nets for the Americans? With Tim Howard suspended for Saturday's match due to yellow-card accumulation, the job will fall to either Brad Guzan or Marcus Hahnemann. While Guzan has appeared in more club games since the start of the year, Hahnemann has been in goal for Reading during their past three league contests since returning from a calf injury. Even though Howard has garnered the vast majority of starts in this qualifying cycle, Hejduk feels that neither the crowd nor rust will factor into the performance of Howard's replacement.
"Guzan is playing at a high enough level in England where those things won't be an issue," Hejduk said. "The same goes for [Hahnemann]."
Regardless of who starts in goal, the match represents a great opportunity for the U.S. to put their stamp on the Hex, and put some distance between themselves and teams like Mexico and Honduras. But any kind of hiccup in El Salvador will temper the good vibrations the Mexico win created, and give hope to their rivals.
Whether El Salvador is capable of such a result is another question. The players went on strike last week in a dispute with the Salvadoran Football Federation over unpaid bonuses. The disagreement has since been resolved, but some precious training time was lost. The aforementioned home draw with T&T has also increased the pressure on El Salvador to get a result in this game, since getting just one point from two home matches would put a serious dent in the Blues' hopes of qualifying. De los Cobos is keenly aware of this, telling La Prensa Grafica "We cannot play with fear."
Hejduk insists that won't be a problem for him or his teammates.
"There's always those little butterflies before the game," Hejduk said. "But I try to use those to amp me up a bit. Those nerves turn into amps, and it's a positive type of nervousness."
An electric performance Saturday will put the U.S. one step closer to the World Cup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.
|U.S. vs. El Salvador
|Last five road games against El Salvador
Oct. 9, 2004 -- W, 2-0, San Salvador (WCQ)
June 29, 1997 -- T, 1-1, San Salvador (WCQ)
March 23, 1993 -- T, 2-2, San Salvador
Feb. 18, 1992 -- L, 2-0, San Salvador
Sept. 15, 1977 -- W, 2-1, San Salvador