SAN SALVADOR – They landed on a charter flight, just three veterans of the devastating defeat four years earlier along with 20 fresh faces and a new coaching staff.
Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen were left behind.
Rebuilding over, the U.S. opens 2022 World Cup qualifying at El Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlán on Thursday night missing two of its top starters, one because of COVID-19 and the other back spasms. It will be the start of an unprecedented schedule that features three matches in the first week and 14 in a 210-day span that for some will include five trans-Atlantic interruptions to their European club seasons.
This future could not have been imagined this when dejected U.S. players trudged off the field following the ignominious night in Trinidad that ended a streak of seven straight World Cup appearances.
“I remember where I was when when the U.S. failed to qualify back in 2017,” said Matt Turner, who will start in goal. “And to think about that moment from my couch and to be here now to, to have the opportunity to have a say in righting the ship is truly an honor.”
Turner, who watched that night from Walpole, Massachusetts, knows World Cup qualifiers in Central America and the Caribbean are far different from what players experience in Europe and in Major League Soccer.
“Bad pitches maybe,” midfielder Weston McKennie said, “hot weather, maybe bad refs. It’s just things were going to learn on the way and I think it’s things we’re going to adapt to as a group.”
The U.S. is ranked 10th, its highest since 2006, after winning the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup, and El Salvador is 64th. Los Cuscatlecos have reached just two World Cups, in 1970 and 1982, and the U.S. has 18 wins, five draws and one loss in the matchup, which includes a 17-game unbeaten streak (15 victories). The U.S. won the most recent meeting 6-0 in an exhibition in December.
Three of the eight nations in regional finals qualify and fourth place advances to a playoff. But there rarely are easy games for the U.S. in Central America.
“The one thing that I learned from playing with the youth national teams in Central America would be that you can’t be naive in these games,” said midfielder Tyler Adams, who played at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-17 tournament in Honduras, and the 2017 Under-20 competition in Costa Rica. “When you go into these games being naive, thinking that they’re going to be an easy game or that there’s going to be opportunity to score a lot of goals, I think this is where you are able to make a lot of mental mistakes. And for us going into this game, we need to be prepared for a challenge, for a battle, that it might not be pretty football."
Pulisic returned to training Monday but hasn’t played in a match since Aug. 14, missing Chelsea’s last two games following a positive COVID-19 test — he was vaccinated and said he didn’t show symptoms. He was left in Nashville, along with Steffen, who woke up Wednesday with back spasms.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, a veteran of 14 qualifiers as a player from 2001-05, said Pulisic is uncertain for Sunday's qualifier against Canada in Tennessee.
Berhalter chose Turner over Ethan Horvath. Turner made his national team debut in January and allowed one goal in six matches as at Gold Cup this summer. Horvath stepped in when Steffen injured a knee in the Nations League final against Mexico.
“We all know that this is unlike anything that we’ve ever experienced before,” Turner said. “We’re going to play in a stadium in an environment that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But as coach said, just need to be true to our anchors, be true to who we are as a team, and things will happen for us.”
Berhalter anticipates rotating many players over the three matches.
“On an individual level, I think there’s guys that will be able to go three games and 90 minutes, but it’s not going to be many, especially given the way we want to play and the way we want to press,” Berhalter said.
DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta are the only players on hand who were in the 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in Couva. Another, Tim Ream, was an unused substitute.
Fans will be in the stands after talk of a government ban ended.
El Salvador is led by coach Hugo Pérez, who had 73 appearances for the U.S. from 1984-94 and scored in a 1-0 qualifying win over El Salvador in 1989. He recruited nephew Joshua Pérez, a teammate of Pulisic and Adams at 2015 Under-17 World Cup who had three goals in the first two rounds of qualifying.
Also on El Salvador is Álex Roldan, a brother and Seattle Sounders teammate of U.S. midfielder Cristian Roldan.
“We had talked about him fouling me a little bit and talked about me specifically asking the ref to give him a yellow card,” Cristian Roldan said, jokingly. “It’s all in good fun, but we’re both competitors, so once we get on the field, we’re no longer brothers, we’re rivals.”
Americans opened the final round of the last qualifying cycle with a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica, causing Jurgen Klinsmann to be fired and Bruce Arena to return. The Americans went winless on the road in the round.
Acosta said veterans don’t tell the newcomers how failure felt. They don’t have to.
“We never want to go down that road again, and so in that aspect, we don’t want to have that same feeling that we did back in 2017 and use that as we go into these games as motivations to do whatever we have to do to win,” he said. “Sometimes you can play beautiful football, but sometimes you got to get pretty gritty, roll up your sleeves and grind out a result. So whatever kind of way we have to do it, as long as we get the result.”
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