SAN SALVADOR — The U.S. was seeking redemption. El Salvador was seeking respect.
And both got a little of what they were after Thursday in their opening game of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, one which ended in a scoreless draw.
For the U.S., Thursday’s match came nearly four years after the final game of the last qualifying tournament, a 2-1 loss in Trinidad that kept the team out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986. And though Thursday’s draw ended two streaks for the U.S., which had won its last nine games and in its last 15 games against CONCACAF opponents, it also gave the Americans an important point on the road, where they are difficult to come by in World Cup qualifying.
For El Salvador, which hasn’t played in a World Cup since 1982 — and hasn’t even played in the final round of qualifying since 2010 — the draw showed it could hang with regional giants like the U.S., the reigning confederation champion and the No. 10 team in the world, according to FIFA.
With Christian Pulisic out as he recovers from a bout with COVID-19, defender DeAndre Yedlin was the only U.S. starter in El Salvador who also played in the loss to Trinidad. Instead, coach Gregg Berhalter used the youngest U.S. lineup for a qualifier in 16 years, one that included nine players making their first appearance in a CONCACAF qualifier.
And it was greeted by a raucous crowd at Estadio Cuscatlan, the largest soccer venue in Central America.
Attendance was supposed to be limited to 29,000 but that didn’t happen, with nearly twice that many people filling the aging concrete-bowl stadium, many standing in aisles and stairways.
And they came to see a Salvadoran team that has been rejuvenated under new coach Hugo Perez, a former U.S. World Cup player. Since Perez, who was born in El Salvador, took over in April, La Selecta has played with energy and confidence — not to mention a half a dozen players who, like Perez, are dual nationals from the U.S.
Perez’s team started on the front foot Thursday and stayed there, dominating a first half that could have been different if any of the three near misses El Salvador put over the bar were on target.
The Salvadorans got close again in the 57th minute when U.S. keeper Matt Turner made his tough save of the night, a diving stop at the far post on Eriq Zavaleta’s header off a corner kick. Turner finished with a shutout, his seventh in eight games with the U.S., but Thursday’s was the first of the eight he didn’t win.
But as good as the start was for El Salvador it was just that, a start. The current round of regional qualifying, which has been both expanded and condensed by the pandemic, figures to be the most challenging ever.
The COVID-19 outbreak forced CONCACAF to alter earlier rounds of qualifying and expand the final one by two teams, making it an eight-team competition. The tournament was then condensed, with 14 qualifying matches squeezed into a seven-month window. Four years ago, the 10-game CONCACAF tournament was played over 12 months.
The top three finishers qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The U.S. faces the same road, of course — a road that is normally potted and treacherous. The U.S. didn’t win away from home in the last qualifying cycle, a big reason why it didn’t go to Russia, and has won only eight times in 31 road qualifiers since 1998.
The U.S. plays again Sunday against Canada in Nashville, Tennessee, and El Salvador will play host to Honduras.