World Cup qualifying
USMNT offense falls short in 0-0 draw with El Salvador: Analysis & Player Ratings
September 03, 2021
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team opened World Cup qualifying with a 0-0 away draw to El Salvador. The result certainly wasn’t the end or the world, but the U.S. team’s offense failed to get the job done in terms of finishing and generating chances.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter was without Zack Steffen and Christian Pulisic for this one but still named a very strong starting XI that included a front line of Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, and Konrad de la Fuente. The midfield consisted of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Brenden Aaronson. The backline was Sergino Dest on the left, DeAndre Yedlin on the right, and a central defense tandem of Tim Ream and Miles Robinson. Matt Turner was in goal.
The U.S. team started off strong with a few chances and the best was a set piece delivered by Reyna which found Robinson – whose header went over the bar. El Salvador, meanwhile, grew into the game in the first half but also failed to generate decent chances.
In the second half, the U.S. team played better and had most of the play but the dangerous opportunities were elusive. McKennie and Jordan Pefok (who replaced Sagent) also missed good headers.
When the final whistle sounded, the U.S. team walked off the field disappointed with the result – which was understandable. The U.S. team outshot El Salvador 13-7 (10-4 inside the box) but lacked enough high-quality chances.
“It was a great learning experience from the group,” Berhalter said. “From my vantage point, there were a lot of things to improve upon. I thought the fight was good, the intention to win the game was good, but we got to get better. We've got to be more connected as a team and be able to finish our chances in a better way.
“But overall, I am proud of the group and proud of the way they handled the game,” he added. “It's onto the next one.”
Here are my thoughts on the game
CONCACAF will never be easy
Almost all the players on the U.S. team have never played a CONCACAF game on the road. While expectations among fans were that this team had the quality to dominate on the road, this was never going to be the case. These games are simply different – even when there is a wide talent gap between the two teams. It’s not unlike cup games in Europe, when a top division team has to go on the road to an energized lower-division team and the result ends even. This is actually even a tougher environment given the emotions of qualifiers, a jam-packed and hostile crowd, and an El Salvadorian team that has shown it can play well (when it outplayed Mexico in long stretches of a 1-0 loss at the Gold Cup).
To be fair, the U.S. team handled it fairly well. They were never pinned back or forced into emergency defending. Their defense was cool under pressure. El Salvador never got into an offensive rhythm, as home teams typically do.
“It's getting back into it, for a lot of guys it was their first time playing in that type of atmosphere and it is a learning experienced,” Berhalter explained. “I thought we started the game really well and we started the second half well. But we have to finish those chances. Overall, we lacked that connection that is going get us over the top.”
“I don't think we'd approach the match again and say we're going to El Salvador to get a point,” Berhalter later added. “That's not the mindset of this group. The whole intention was to win the game... Unfortunately, we didn't get the goal. The intention of this group is to win games. Now it's just about doing it in this format.”
The U.S. team had problems on the night, but they never seemed to be in awe of the moment. That’s actually impressive for a young team playing their first qualifier on the road.
That being said, these games simply aren’t going to be easy anytime soon.
Lack of offense
The lack of offense was a big problem. After the game, there were questions about why Aaronson was started centrally as opposed to Reyna (who is now playing there for his club). Reyna was easily the team’s best offensive player in this game while Aaronson, while solid for Salzburg, still has a habit of not getting enough touches to dominate a game. In hindsight, Reyna starting centrally could have opened up more doors and created more chances.
Berhalter said his decision was based on the hopes Aaronson could press from the midfield to create chances.
"Gio has been playing there with his club,” Berhalter said. “He's played centrally and played wide. He's played wide more often with us and Brenden has mixed it up with us. It was just a comfort level in how we wanted to press and we thought he'd be more comfortable pressing as a midfielder vs. Gio. Those are things we can evaluate moving forward. We also know Gio is very good in and around the penalty box, he's a dynamic player, and he can make things happen from the wing. He had a couple of plays that almost led to goals."
Despite that, however, the U.S. team still had a front six capable of getting a win with the rest of the players all in positions to succeed – de la Fuente was on the appropriate wing, Sargent was in the No. 9, Adams and McKennie were in central midfield, Dest was at left back and has plenty of experience in that role with the U.S. team.
The game still called for the U.S. team to make moments of individual brilliance in the final third and lethal team combination paly, but they never came. The line-splitting through-ball, the well-placed shot, the visionary passing – none of that materialized. Berhalter, meanwhile, said that the team wasn’t calm and play with each other as a collective unit.
“I think we actually think we started the game well,” Berhalter said. “Looking at this from a learning experience, the guys handled it well but there needs to be a calm that sets in after that initial period when we start taking over and we never really had the calm. It was bits and pieces in the second half - but overall, not enough.”
"I think maybe the message of playing behind early in the game, and playing in their half early in the game, wasn't followed up by the message of: 'Ok, once we do that, now we need to move the ball around and be calmer,'” he added. “It turned into hectic of a game and we didn't manage that well."
“There was too much individual play,” Berhalter stated bluntly. “There was not enough switching the field, not enough making them shift from side to side, and in the end we fell short.”
Part of that also is credit to El Salvador for not making any egregious errors at home. Their team was largely error free and that speaks well of their coach (and former U.S. international) Hugo Perez.
Solid central defense
Road qualifiers are often a big test on central defenders and Gregg Berhalter made a surprising decision to roll with Tim Ream and Miles Robinson. The decision to start Robinson wasn’t a surprise after his terrific Gold Cup but Ream over Brooks was debatable.
After the game, Berhalter said the decision to not start Brooks was to keep him rested and manage his work load.
In the end, both ended up with very strong games. Robinson had a great offensive chance in the 8th minute that he would like to have back, but defensively these two both played a great game. Both were aggressive getting the ball forward and while it didn’t always work, there were instances of line-spitting balls that got the ball into the attack.
Berhatler was quick to praise Robinson after the game: “Defensively, I thought he was outstanding."
Nether, however, made any defensive mistakes that gave El Salvador good chances.
Both defenders were also boosted by a strong game from Tyler Adams in the No. 6 role and he did well to shield the backline. Matt Turner had on mistake in goal when he didn’t handle a backpass from Yedlin and conceded a corner – but otherwise was sharp with his handling of crosses and the one big save he was forced to make.
USMNT lost duels
Aside from quality in the final third, another disappointment from the U.S. team was that El Salvador won more duels in this game. Of the total 139 duels, the U.S. team won 65 while El Salvador won 74. Outdueling your opponent on the road is tough but it would have helped the U.S. team generate more possession and offensive momentum if it was better.
El Salvador’s Alex Roldan (brother of Cristian Roldan) won 12/17 duels and Narcisco Orellana won 13/16 duels. Roldan was one of the best players in this game.
The biggest culprit here was McKennie who won just 3/14 of his duels on the night. The Juventus midfielder was decent defensively in other aspects but he lost his duels in this one.
Berhalter has spoken of the need for his teams to win duels and has expressed disappointment when they come up short. That was the case tonight.
Looking ahead to Canada
It has now become critical that the U.S. team win post a win over Canada on Sunday in Nashville. A win in that game would keep the U.S. team on track under the (win at home, draw on the road formula). That would then set up a chance for the U.S. team to head to Honduras with momentum.
Canada played Honduras to a disappointing 1-1 draw at home on Thursday. If Canada had won that game, they might have elected to rest some key players to have a full strength team heading home into the third game. But with just one point from a home game, Canada might have to press players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David for three starts.
The U.S. team, meanwhile, will likely welcome back Christian Pulisic – who did not play due to him having been COVID quarantine. That will likely push Gio Reyna into the middle. Adams will likely start again and it remains to be seen if McKennie will be rotated. It’s also easy to see Dest switching to the right with Robinson starting at the left.
There will be big questions. John Brooks will likely start as he’s off to a strong start this season but will Berhalter stick with Miles Robinson? Either way, it is tough to improve on central defense from the El Salvador game.
The big question, however, could come at forward where Josh Sargent continues to struggle to score for the U.S. team and Berhalter does not have the luxury to allow a player to work through slumps.
Regardless, expectations will be much higher on the U.S. team to be much more dangerous offensively.
The Starting lineup
Matt Turner: Handled his crosses well and made an excellent save in the second half. One minor mistake in the first half handling a backpass, which conceded a corner. Otherwise, he was fine. Rating: 6.5
Sergino Dest: Playing on the left side, Dest did not contribute nearly enough offensively (one shot in the 19th minute) and El Salvador attacked down his side the most. Rating: 4.5
DeAndre Yedlin: While Yedlin did not get into the attack much, he was strong defensively and in his duel winning. Rating: 5.5
Tim Ream: Was defensively sharp and also was a calming presence in the backline. Rating: 7.0
Miles Robinson: He will regret his open header in the 8th minute but Robinson’s was solid in his primary responsibility – defending. He won his aerials and physically handled El Salvador’s front line. Had a few important passes out of the back to generate chances. Rating: 7.0
Tyler Adams: The captain was the U.S. team’s best midfielder, winning duels, making smart defensive plays, and reading the game to breakup El Salvador’s attacks before they materialized. He wasn’t involved in the attack but this was a solid performance on the road. Rating: 7.0
Weston McKennie: McKennie ran a lot, brought energy, and was feisty, but did not help in possession and turned the ball over too much. Rating: 5.0
Brenden Aaronson: Getting the start in the No. 10 role, Aaronson was not involved offensively as much as needed (28 touches in 78 minutes and just nine completed passes). Rating: 4.5
Konrad de la Fuente: Looked lively on the wings but was too often isolated without support from the fullbacks. Rating: 5.0
Gio Reyna: In hindsight, it would have been better to have Reyna start in the midfield where he is better slated to be involved more and combine. He did well with his chances and was the U.S. team’s most dangerous offensive player. Rating: 6.5
Josh Sargent: His hold up play was effective at times and the U.S. team began finding him in dangerous spots at the end of the first half. Still, his finishing is letting him down. Rating: 4.5
Antonee Robinson: was a bit better pushing into the attack and brought some raw speed into the game. Rating: 6.0
Jordan Pefok: The BSC Young Boys forward played at essentially the same level as Sargent. Rating: 5.0
Kellyn Acosta: Was decent in the midfield and then at fullback. Rating: 5.0
Sebastian Lletget: Had a nice cross that found Pefok for a good chance with a header. Other than that, was quiet in his 11 minutes. Rating: 5.5
Cristian Roldan: Did not affect the game in either a positive or negative manner in his 11 minutes. Rating: NR