But when the Americans do arrive in Doha in five months, they are going to face adversity in other forms. And unlike Tuesday, when they scored late to tie El Salvador, 1-1, at Estadio Cuscatlán, the stakes will rank considerably higher.
For much of the miserable night, Coach Gregg Berhalter’s 15th-ranked squad didn’t have an answer for Alex Larin’s long-range oddity of a goal in the 35th minute. But early in second-half stoppage time, substitute Jordan Morris headed in Luca de la Torre’s cross from close range.
“The group grows with moments like this,” Berhalter said. “After the game, Jordan walks into the locker room, everyone starts to cheer. Everyone’s uniform is a dark brown color. The shoes are a mess. The staff is all dirty. I mean, this is what builds teams.”
With the United States facing its second defeat to El Salvador in 27 meetings, Christian Pulisic served a corner kick. Mario González made a sensational save on Weston McKennie’s header. Jesús Ferreira tracked down the ball and supplied de la Torre, another sub, who set up Morris’s first international goal since November 2019.
“I just tried to make a run in the box and he put a perfect ball in the box,” Morris said. “I was fortunate to be there and put in the back of the net, but all credit [to de la Torre] to put a great ball in the box.”
With that frantic finish, the Americans finished a string of four matches undefeated in the next-to-last camp before the World Cup. The result also extended their unbeaten streak against No. 74 El Salvador to 20 games over 30 years.
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Each team finished with 10 players after red cards to U.S. sub Paul Arriola in the 70th minute and El Salvador’s Ronald Rodriguez nine minutes later.
El Salvador (1-0-2) leads the Nations League group standings, followed by the United States (1-0-1). Grenada is third at 0-2-1. Play will resume in early 2023.
Bigger things, though, are ahead for the Americans, who will assemble for one final camp — in late September — before the World Cup roster is named this fall. During that nine-day affair in Europe, they will play friendlies against two World Cup teams from the Asian confederation. One game will be held in Germany, the other in Spain. The opponents will be announced in the coming weeks.
The Nations League group stage is not the best testing ground for the World Cup, but because it’s a mandatory regional competition, the United States as well as Qatar-bound Mexico and Canada are trying to make the most of it. Canada lost in Honduras, and Mexico drew at Jamaica.
Berhalter used these two matches to test players on the roster bubble and work on partnerships and tactics. He rested several regulars against Grenada, ranked No. 170 in the world, but recalled several to face El Salvador.
Ethan Horvath, among at least four candidates for the three goalkeeping slots in Qatar, made his first start of this window but faltered on Larin’s goal. Striker Haji Wright, a sub in two matches, received his first career start but was replaced at halftime.
“It just wasn’t his night,” Berhalter said of Wright. “It doesn’t rule him out for anything in the future. We don’t work like that.”
The top wingers, Pulisic and Tim Weah, flanked Wright, who enjoyed a breakout campaign in Turkey last season and was looking to make an impression in a wide-open competition to become the long-term starting striker.
In the buildup to the match, Berhalter wanted to see his team make progress on the road after going 1-3-3 in the away qualifiers. “That’s certainly going to be a challenge for this group,” he said.
In the big picture, Berhalter said, “We know it’s the last game before we go on break from each other, and we want to end on a good note.”
The scene was nothing like the meeting here in September on the opening night of the qualifying calendar. Despite plans for reduced capacity because of coronavirus guidelines, the stadium that day was packed with spectators roaring their support for a team that hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1982. The sides settled for a 0-0 draw.
Tuesday’s ticket presale was about 5,000 for a stadium that holds almost 45,000 for soccer. El Salvador’s draw at Grenada last week did not exactly energize the fan base, and the final turnout of 6,313, left acres of unoccupied blue seats and bleachers.
Three hours before kickoff, two black-and-white cats took seats in the south end, perfectly content until spectators began entering. Then they dashed off to quieter quarters.
Daily rain had left the field mushy and heavy. An Alejandro Fernández concert Saturday added to the field’s stress. On Monday night, when the U.S. team arrived for practice, players and staff found many metal pieces, presumably left from concert operations, scattered around the field.
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Hard rain just before kickoff compounded the field issues. Within 20 minutes, the right side of Tyler Adams’s white uniform was stained with mud, and the left side of Pulisic’s was covered.
“We knew it was going to be a challenging game from a field-condition standpoint,” Berhalter said. “We went to the stadium yesterday and saw the conditions, saw how it was gradually getting worse and knew at game time it wasn’t going to be good. I can only say that I’m really proud of the guys the way they embrace that. They didn’t hesitate. They didn’t complain. They just went about their business.”
The players stomped through the mud like kids.
“It was definitely fun,” midfielder Yunus Musah said. “I just told [a teammate], ‘Yo, let’s just enjoy this. There’s not many matches that are like this, so let’s just enjoy it.’ And yeah, we definitely did.”
Adams said that, during warm-ups, “the pitch actually wasn’t that bad. As soon as it started pouring, like the torrential rain, it got muddy really, really quickly — slipping and sliding. We got used to it pretty quickly, and we had to figure it out or else we wouldn’t have gotten that final goal.”
Both teams created half-chances before the hosts went ahead on Larin’s bid from an acute angle well beyond the left side of the penalty area. Horvath was a few steps off his line anticipating a cross, and when Larin targeted the near side, the keeper was left motionless in the six-yard box as the ball whizzed into the net.
It was the first goal conceded by the United States in this four-game stretch following a 3-0 victory over Morocco, a 0-0 draw with Uruguay and a 5-0 rout of Grenada.
Musah could’ve scored the equalizer in the 59th minute with a running one-timer in the box after a sharp build-up, but González made a reflex save.
There were the red cards, a midfield scuffle, U.S. shouts for a penalty kick and general mayhem on a field that increasingly yielded its greenness to brown.
“To see the resiliency from this young group, the way they fought, we’re really proud of them,” Berhalter said. “Although we didn’t get the win, it’s a good takeaway and a good end to the June camp. And it really, really brought the guys together in a good way.”
Notes: With a 23-man roster limit, center back Walker Zimmerman (foot injury), left back George Bello (coach’s decision) and central midfielder Malik Tillman (unspecified injury) were not in uniform. … Pulisic is scheduled to participate in FIFA’s 2026 World Cup venue announcement Thursday in New York, people with knowledge of the plans said. Fox Sports 1 and Spanish-language Universo will provide coverage starting at 5 p.m.