[WORLD CUP QUALIFYING] For once, not all of the U.S. troubles against a supposedly overmatched Concacaf foe were of its own doing. Still, it fouled up on enough occasions to mar stretches of crisp, confident play while beating El Salvador, 2-1, in Sandy, Utah, Saturday. Goals by Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore late in the first half brought the USA back from a 1-0 deficit inflicted when Christian Castillo headed home a Rodolfo Zelaya cross in the 32nd minute.
Referee Jose Pineda and his officiating crew weren't at their best. Pineda ignored several vicious fouls by the Salvadorans, declined to play advantage with Landon Donovan setting sail into the Salvadoran defensive third, disallowed a U.S. goal by Jozy Altidore that would have clinched the match, and refused to whistle a blatant handball block by Christian Castillo.
On the other hand, he also let a clear dive by Charlie Davies escape unpunished, and drew the ire of El Salvador coach Carlos de los Cobos by adding enough first-half stoppage time for Jozy Altidore to head in Land Donovan's cross in the 47th minute for the winning goal. (The added time was warranted because of the long time goalkeeper Miguel Montes spent on the ground after a collision with Davies.)
While those factors don't add up to fair and balanced officiating, the fact is that for disquieting periods, the Salvadorans seized the momentum with polished play on the flanks and in midfield. And it wasn't Pineda who hooked a terrible clearance right to Zelaya, who froze three Americans before chipping the cross from which Castillo scored.
Central midfielders Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber weren't able to keep tabs on Ramon Sanchez and Ramon Flores. That pair sprayed accurate passes to Eliseo Quintanilla, Christian Castillo and Rodolfo Zelaya, whose work on and off the ball tested the U.S. numerous times. Had their crossing and shooting from distance been more accurate the Salvadorans could well have earned at least a point, for the Americans struggled to contain their buildup play around the penalty area.
Still, had the USA been able to hold and keep the ball more efficiently, it would have deprived El Salvador of much possession. Instead, at times the Americans played too fancy for their own good in its own half, which allowed Sanchez and Flores and Arturo Alvarez to nick balls away from Bradley and Dempsey, in particular, and set attacks in motion.
When the USA did play balls through midfield pressure, it cut open the Salvadorans. Dempsey raced clear in the second half on a through ball but ran out of gas after a 50-yard run and shot weakly at goalie Montes, and on another occasion played a through ball to Altidore with a slide tackle; Altidore put the ball on the net, but Dempsey's lunge was deemed dangerous and the goal was waved off.
Bradley's touches in the attacking half were decisive, as when he controlled a ball on the left and escaped pressure to drop it back for Donovan, who stepped into space to serve an inswinging cross for Altidore to head home. A few minutes earlier, Donovan had crossed a free kick from midfield near the right touchline; the Salvadorans trapped a few Americans offside, but not Dempsey, who came from a deeper position to head home.
A minute before he scored, Dempsey had bounced a header over the crossbar from another great serve by Jonathan Spector. Prior to that sequence, a through ball from Altidore to Davies produced a good shot on frame that Marvin Gonzalez cleared off the goal line.
Those missed chances, and the disallowed Altidore goal, gave El Salvador hope, and it pressed forward to cause a few moments of concern, especially in the final minutes when Castillo chested a Zelaya cross as three Americans stood around, and the ball fell for substitute William Reyes to shoot on goal. Howard saved it rather comfortably but a more lethal finisher would have tied the game.
Donovan showcased his wares throughout the match. He set up both goals, and covered amazing amounts of ground to support and prompt attacks while also tracking back to double-team opponent and collect loose balls. While Dempsey's finishing let him down on too many occasions, and he provided his usual boneheaded turnover, he used most of his touches well, and also contributed with a few tackles and interceptions. Davies and Altidore didn't link up directly all that much, but combined well with teammates while working in sync off the ball.
The central defensive duo of Carlos Bocanegra and Chad Marshall weren't always connected, though individually both played reasonably well. Occasionally they were a step slow to react or too close together or too far apart. The erratic play of Jonathan Bornstein at left back, as well as his flicked clearance right to Zelaya, didn't help stabilize the back line.
Prior to the game, Coach Bob Bradley and his players talked about how a full week of training would help their overall performance. While the USA certainly created enough chances in a qualifying match where play can be conservative, and would have most likely cruised had it scored a third goal, it lacked the same defensive cohesion to subdue determined and skilled opponents.
Some of the shortcomings can be attributed to the absences of central defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, and other possible starters being saved for the Wednesday game at Trinidad & Tobago. That will present another tricky, demanding test, for though T&T is all but out of the Hexagonal mathematically, it won't take the day off emotionally.
Sept. 5 in Sandy, Utah
USA 2 El Salvador 1. Goals: Dempsey 41, Altidore 45; Castillo 32.
USA -- Howard, Spector, Marshall, Bocanegra, Bornstein, Dempsey, Feilhaber (Beckerman, 80), Bradley, Donovan, Davies (Holden, 73), Altidore (Torres, 85).
El Salvador -- Montes, Marvin Gonzalez, Mardoqueo Gonzalez, Salazar, Umanzor, Flores (Reyes, 63), Alvarez (Romero, 50), Sanchez, Quintanilla (Corrales, 75), Castillo, Zelaya.
Yellow Cards: El Salvador -- Hernandez 0 Zelaya 80.
Referee: Jose Pineda (Honduras).
USA / SLV
Shots on Goal: 6/5
Corner Kicks: 4/3