SAN SALVADOR – Among 15 players at RB Leipzig who headed last week to national teams, Tyler Adams tried to explain to teammates what it's like playing in CONCACAF, which allows subpar fields in outdated stadiums that elite leagues don't tolerate.
“They sit there and laugh because they have to play against England, France, obviously some great countries with a lot of talent,” the American midfielder said. “And I tell them, trust me, I rather play against France, England in these games where the conditions and the fans and the pitch and the ball and everything is an ideal situation. For us, it’s never going to be an ideal situation on the road.”
Returning to World Cup qualifying 1,424 days after the infamous defeat in Trinidad ended a streak of seven appearances in soccer's showcase, the United States opened its attempt to reach the 2022 tournament with a 0-0 draw at El Salvador on Thursday night.
A point on the road isn't great, but it's the formula for success. The Americans' downfall last cycle was caused primarily by home losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, not by two defeats and three draws on the road.
“We’ve never dominated an away game categorically in CONCACAF — ever,” said former goalkeeper Tim Howard, now an NBC analyst. “We will wipe the floor with them at home, probably keep a clean sheet, probably be 4-0 with passion off the park, I’m certain of it.
A young American roster featured 12 players making their World Cup qualifying debuts, including nine starters. U.S. defender Tim Ream, who plays for Fulham in England, said the field was bumpy and dry.
U.S. players were told they couldn't shower after the match at Monumental Estadio Cuscatlán, the U.S. Soccer Federation said. Instead, they boarded a bus immediately after the final whistle, and they inched through congestion around the venue to head back to their hotel, where postgame media interviews were conducted.
Ream, who turns 34 next month, was an unused bench player in Trinidad. He and DeAndre Yedlin were the only holdovers in a starting lineup that averaged 23 years, 282 days, the Americans' youngest since 2005 and fourth-youngest of the modern era.
Ream had laid out to the debutants what they would face.
“A lot of these guys are used to playing on immaculate fields and pitches in Europe and it wasn’t going to be that,” he said. “Really, it’s just trying to make sure guys stay calm because we have a lot of different personalities, a lot of types, guys that can get frustrated and guys that can get anxious if things aren’t going the way they want them to. And my role and where I see myself is just trying to keep guys focused, keep guys calm and keep guys in the moment.”
While the U.S. created chances, an offense led by forward Josh Sargent failed to finish them. Gio Reyna and Konrad de la Fuente were on the flanks, and Brenden Aaronson in central midfield in place of Christian Pulisic, who had not regained fitness following a positive COVID-19 test.
“Gio going to take a corner, when he’s playing in Dortmund, he’s not getting hit with water bottles,” Adams said.
Yedlin was at right back and Sergiño Dest on the left, with the U.S. likely to rotate with three qualifiers in seven days.
Ream and Miles Robinson were in central defense, and John Brooks was saved for Sunday night's qualifier against Canada in Nashville, Tennessee.
Matt Turner, in goal because Zack Steffen had back spasms, had one save, diving to stop Eriq Zavaleta’s header from Marvin Monterroza’s corner kick in the 57th.
While the U.S. outshot El Salvador 12-7, the Americans rarely came close to scoring. Robinson put an open header over the crossbar in the ninth minute from Reyna’s free kick; Weston McKennie couldn’t get his head solidly on Reyna’s cross in the 73rd, then crossed to second-half sub Kellyn Acosta for a header that was punched away by diving Mario González in the 76th.
“It is a learning experience," Gregg Berhalter said after his first qualifier as U.S. coach. “I thought we started the game really well. We saw the second half really well, but we got to finish some of those chances. But overall, I think we lacked that connection that’s really going to get us over the top. I think it was too much individual play, not enough switching field, not enough making them shift from side to side. And in the end, we fell short. I'd say, looking at everything, we’ll take it. We’ll move on. And now it’s about the game against Canada."
Adams has played in a European Champion League semifinal and scored in a quarterfinal. Few matches are of more importance. But he hadn't experienced what he faced Thursday night.
“The energy is just completely different,” he said. “You have to go into the game with the right mindset and be ready to battle, that’s the best way to describe it, is they’re intense, they’re feisty, they’re gritty. You can’t go into these games naive. So yeah, for me, I think that the energy going into these games has to be right.”
Howard, a veteran of Everton and Manchester United who made 121 international appearances, said he would have had difficulty grasping the hurdles.
“Hang on a second, you train at Chelsea and you train at Juventus, how can a game in El Salvador be difficult? And it's crazy,” he said. “Away at El Salvador or Honduras or Jamaica or Mexico, it’s never going to perfect. The onus is on the player: How quickly can you get over into the States, get over jet lag, really focus on team tactics and togetherness and have that single-minded mentality. That’s the trick that's so very difficult.”
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