With just four games remaining, the finish line for World Cup qualifying is coming into view for the United States. Yet instead of being well in the clear, the Yanks begin their finishing kick with plenty of company, meaning Saturday's home qualifier against El Salvador (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com) will see the g-forces cranked up more than normal.
Given the perfect home records enjoyed by Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S., the wiggle room for the top four teams in CONCACAF has shrunk to straitjacket-like proportions, making it imperative that the Yanks once again hold serve in Sandy, Utah.
Odds are the Yanks will do just that. The U.S. hasn't lost a home qualifier since Sept. 1, 2001, when it fell to Honduras 3-2. Since then, the Americans have gone 16-0-1 at home, the lone blemish being a 1-1 semifinal round tie versus Jamaica during the 2006 campaign that occurred after passage to the final stage had been secured.
But all it would take is one slipup against El Salvador on Saturday, and the Americans could find themselves staring at a likely fourth-place finish, with a playoff series against a difficult South American opponent their consolation prize. It's a scenario the Yanks are very much aware of, and keen to avoid.
"I wouldn't say we're worried," said U.S. forward Brian Ching. "But we do understand this game is extremely important, especially because we didn't pick up points in the last game."
Ching was referring to the Yanks' 2-1 defeat against Mexico, but he just as easily could have been talking about another missed opportunity -- the 2-2 tie against El Salvador in March. The U.S. was expected to win the match, yet in rallying for two goals in the last 18 minutes, the team was fortunate to escape with a draw.
"Even at home, El Salvador still had a game plan of staying tight, and they were able to get some chances where we lost the ball in not great situations," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "They were able to take advantage of some counterattacks."
It's for precisely that reason that the U.S. should remain wary of Los Cuscatlecos, even in the decidedly friendlier confines of Rio Tinto Stadium. Under the stewardship of coach Carlos De Los Cobos, El Salvador has hit upon a counterattacking style, home and away, that has caused opponents plenty of difficulty.
Given the pace and creativity of players like Christian Castillo, Eliseo Quintanilla and newly eligible Arturo Alvarez, the strategy could test the U.S. again, under the right circumstances -- especially since the Yanks will be expected to carry the game to the visitors.
"It's a matter of staying compact and staying tight, especially in [El Salvador's] end," said Ching. "If we lose the ball in the final third, it's a matter of not giving them an easy out. I think the whole team has to stay compacted, and make it difficult for them. You look at how Mexico played us at home after we scored the goal. That's kind of what we have to do to El Salvador."
The Americans will be without stalwart defender Oguchi Onyewu, who is suspended for the match, but it's a loss with which the U.S. should be able to cope. The danger in the first encounter came primarily from the wings, particularly the Yanks' left side. Whether Bradley opts for Jonathan Bornstein or Jonathan Spector at left fullback on this occasion remains to be seen, but the Americans' one-on-one defending will need to improve as well. Ching admitted that the entire team "dove in on tackles when we didn't need to," and the U.S. will need to show more patience on defense than it did in the first matchup.
|U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. Trinidad and Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, Trinidad
6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com
The one wrinkle that is different about this game is that El Salvador's own qualifying campaign is on life support after losing away to Trinidad & Tobago last month. That could lead to a bit more desperation on the part of the visitors and cause them to be a bit more adventurous than they have in the past.
Yet chances are Los Cuscatlecos will adopt the same hit-and-run strategy that worked so well for them in the first encounter between these two teams. El Salvador has also proven to be a tough team to break down on the road. While it has lost each of three road fixtures in the hexagonal to Honduras, T&T and Costa Rica, it fell by just a solitary goal on each occasion. Of course, for El Salvador, moral victories won't suffice in this match.
"We have to have confidence in the work that we have been doing as a group and go in there and get the result that we need," said Salvadoran captain Ramon Sanchez via e-mail. "It is a must-win game for us, so we have to believe in ourselves and work hard. We know it is a difficult place to play with altitude, but we think that we can get the win."
Don't miss a moment of the latest U.S. soccer and MLS coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join
That's why patience will be the operative word for the U.S. in attack, as well. After spending much of the summer trying to perfect a counterpunching technique -- with mixed results -- the Americans will need to reacquaint themselves with seizing the attacking initiative. Yet it's an approach Bradley is intent on taking.
"Our ability at home to attack, put teams on their heels, get the lead, those are all important things," said Bradley.
So is the play of attackers Clint Dempsey, Charlie Davies, and Landon Donovan, who is now fully recovered from his bout with swine flu. The more open spaces the U.S. saw on the counter against Brazil and Spain at the Confederations Cup will now be replaced by a more conservative opponent.
Finding the requisite spark of creativity against such opponents is something the U.S. has struggled with at times in the past. Yet break them down the U.S. must, lest the straitjacket turn into a noose.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|More World Cup coverage
For more features, analysis, predictions and opinion about the World Cup, drop by our special U.S. index page.