SANDY, Utah -- This penchant for sleepy starts is curious and concerning, and it may one day bite the U.S. soccer team hard.
But the push for South Africa 2010 made steady progress regardless on Saturday, even if the heavily favored home side managed to fall behind once again in an important World Cup qualifier.
In the end, the 2-1 result over El Salvador represented another less-than-comfortable win. It nudged the United States toward the big prize, but it won't create much excited chatter about prospects upon arrival in South Africa. Fans in the stands -- about 75 percent by most estimates in favor of the United States -- were all exhaling as Bob Bradley's men shepherded home the final minutes of one that was too close for majority's comfort.
A 32nd-minute goal from the visitors was a wake-up slap to the noggin for a U.S. attack that may have been a little too casual or unsure. It took a pair of splendid services from Landon Donovan to put things right again for a U.S. squad that remains unblemished on home soil in qualifiers since 2001.
U.S. manager Bob Bradley lamented that his club fell behind once again but also found solace in the positive response. "You do feel that pressure for a moment, but there was a real strong response from the players on the field," the U.S. manager said. "That says a lot about what these players are all about."
It's still a little early to call it for the Untied States. But matched with wins Saturday by Honduras and Mexico, it would take a truly stunning U.S. collapse for anything worse than a fourth-place finish in the six team final-stage group. There is still positioning to worry about since finishing in the top three is far better than tempting fate as the fourth-place finisher.
It was never going to be easy against El Salvador, which had stretched teams in three previous road trips, falling 1-0 in each. And with a U.S. rear guard in big flux, there did seem to be some lurking danger. Sure enough, the United States surrendered the lead in the 32nd minute.
"It's not what you're hoping for," Bradley said with a weary grin. "Soccer is crazy sometimes. You take the initiative in games, but it doesn't always mean you're going to score. Ultimately, you hope it's something you can turn around, but it's nice to see everybody understand that the game's not over when we fall behind."
How did it happen? Jonathan Bornstein made an absolute hash of a fairly routine clearance opportunity, choosing a tricky overhead maneuver rather than something safer. It floated into a dangerous spot, where El Salvador's Rodolfo Zelaya pounced on the gift, somehow found space between three static defenders and supplied a nice ball to Christian Castillo.
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Castillo attacked the ball, Jonathan Spector didn't and the U.S. bid was suddenly a little shakier than it had been as the night started on the Bluegrass pitch at Rio Tinto.
Otherwise, the rebuilt back line mostly held up, shepherded calmly by Carlos Bocanegra, who drew big praise from Bradley for his wise leadership.
The U.S. attack, on the other hand, wasn't so sharp. Slightly disjointed passing and a failure to link individually kept the hand brake applied for much of the first half. Plus, El Salvador's stodgy 5-4-1 arrangement surely added to the difficultly.
All of which made Donovan's confident industry and killer pace that much more vital on the night he became the all-time leader in U.S. qualifier appearances.
The United States' plan all along was defense by offense. Bradley encouraged his bunch to attack aggressively. He hoped to create a fire zone of offense in the Salvadoran end as a means to the let the defense rest. But a pair of Clint Dempsey near misses was about all the United States had until a little defensive disarray gave the Fulham man his latest goal in the U.S. shirt.
Salvadoran goalkeeper Miguel Montes was clearly having trouble communicating with his back line just before Donovan wedged a free kick service right into the sweet spot. About half the U.S. starting lineup may have been offside -- but Dempsey wasn't one of them, and his diving header was clinical.
El Salvador seemed to relax just a bit in first half added time as Donovan danced along the left side with token pressure from MLS man Arturo Alvarez. That provided Donovan enough time and space to pick out Altidore, who's athletic, twisting header turned became his eighth career international goal.
Altidore could have added another in the second half but for a curious decision by Honduran official Jose Pineda, who never provided Altidore or the U.S. coaching staff with an explanation for overturning the goal. At any rate, eight goals at 19 years old isn't bad at all.
"Landon plays great balls, so if you get yourself into good spots, he'll find you," Altidore said.
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Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard, 7: He didn't have a ton to do, but did calmly cover up William Reyes' close-range effort in the 87th.
D, Jonathan Spector, 4: His crossing was inconsistent and he occasionally had to be reminded by teammates to get forward. Beaten on El Salvador's goal and a little untidy in some of the routine work.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 8: Stepped into challenges and attacked balls more aggressively than some lesser experienced back line mates. He cleaned up a couple of their messes, too. Overall, a splendid night for the veteran.
D, Chad Marshall, 6: Got stretched once early, but generally looked composed -- sometimes perhaps too much so -- for a man dealing with his most important start to date. Showed a nice touch on passing over distance.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 3: The latest entry in a decidedly unlovely history of flagging performance at left back. His horrible clearance cost the U.S. the early lead. He was in the game for his offensive ability but he didn't show much of it.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6: Another mixed bag from the Fulham man. He did very little for the first half, even missing twice on good looks at goal. But another big moment helped turn the match as his clinical finish drew the U.S. level.
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M, Michael Bradley, 6: A reasonable performance, without much going terribly wrong or wonderfully right. One nitpick: the Americans needed a calming presence in possession as the match began getting away from them in the second half. It probably needed to be Bradley.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 6: Played within himself and generally remained well positioned and linked with Bradley, which was important against a team looking for chances to counter. His passing was mostly tidy for a half, although he appeared to tire.
M, Landon Donovan, 8: Started as a left-sided attacker but worked his way around the field to say constantly engaged in the offense. His zippy presence always seemed dangerous, and his two pinpoint assists helped keep the night from going dreadfully askew.
F, Jozy Altidore, 7: He was struggling to find the game before El Salvador's goal. Then his late first-half goal seemed to rev up the young striker even more, as his hold-up play and overall effort improved.
F, Charlie Davies, 7: The busiest man on the field. He was linking with Donovan and bothering the Salvadoran defense by pinging around with energy to spare. Left with a calf contusion that doesn't seem serious.
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M, Stuart Holden, 5: Made a couple of things happen with his introduction, but was sloppy on a couple of passes. Probably should have taken one or two late possessions into the corner to help kill the game.
M, Kyle Beckerman, 4: Came on for a fading Feilhaber, although Bradley could have just as easily been subtracted. He looked a little nervous with his touches.
M, Jose Francisco Torres, 5: Was a late replacement for Altidore, a change surely intended to improve possession. He very nearly iced the game but missed on a close-range header after a bold run to get into position.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.