[USA-EL SALVADOR] El Salvador eliminated the USA prematurely the last time it hosted a regional championship, and La Selecta will attempt to do the same when it plays the U.S. national team Sunday in the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup.
A crowd of more than 71,000 fans -- many of them Salvadoran supporters -- is expected at Baltimore's M&T Bank for doubleheader that concludes when Honduras faces Costa Rica.
The USA will attempt to keep its streak alive of having reached the semifinals of the Gold Cup at every tournament since 2000, while El Salvador will be looking to go to the final four for the first time.
El Salvador's under-23 national team tied the USA, 3-3, in March 2012 to eliminate the host Americans from Olympic qualifying in the group stage. Jaime Alas, who recently signed with the San Jose Earthquakes, scored on the last shot of the game four minutes into stoppage time when it slipped through the arms ofSean Johnson to tie the score and drop the USA to third place in their group behind Canada -- yes, Canada -- and El Salvador.
American-born midfielder Richard Menjivar, who grew up playing in the Southern California youth system, attended Evansville and Cal State Bakersfield and now plays for the NASL spring champion Atlanta Silverbacks, is one of four former Salvadoran U-23s who will start on Sunday.
El Salvador's current star, though, is 24-year-old Rodolfo Zelaya, who has bounced around between Alianza in El Salvador, Leon in Mexico and Russian club Alania Vladikavkaz over the last five years.
Zelaya, who goes by the nickname "Fito," was voted to the Best XI at the 2011 Gold Cup when El Salvador lost to Panama on penalty kicks, and he was one of the outstanding players of this year's first round with two goals against Trinidad & Tobago (2-2 tie) and the goal that knocked out Haiti (1-0 win).
El Salvador didn't qualify for this year's Hexagonal. La Selecta had started off well but a 1-0 at home to Costa Rica in its final home game dropped it to third place behind behind Mexico and Costa Rica in its semifinal qualifying group.
Following El Salvador's exit, Peruvian Agustin Castillo took over as national team coach and has continued the youth movement. The average age of the 10 field players he's expected to start on Sunday is less than 24.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann raised some eyebrows when he said after the 4-2 loss to Belgium in Cleveland in late May that he'd "rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador for the 100th time because that’s where you learn.”
Some took it as a slight on Concacaf opponents in general and El Salvador in particular, but Klinsmann said on Saturday that everybody understood the context in which he made the comments and he had a lot of respect for El Salvador.
"It’s a team full of talent," he said. "We know that. I think that you’ve got to give them a really credit about how they worked their way through to the quarterfinals. Obviously, they caused big damage to our Olympic team last year. We know that this is going to be a huge hurdle and we are ready for it and we need to focused and alert from the first second on.”
While El Salvador is much improved -- it is the only non-Hexagonal team still alive at the Gold Cup -- it would be a huge upset if it beat the USA on Sunday.
The USA has beaten El Salvador by shutout all four times they've met at the Gold Cup (1996, 2002, 2003, 2007).
TRIVIA. The USA's only loss in 21 games against El Salvador (15-1-5 record) came in 1992 when Bora Milutinovic, then in his first full season as national team coach and willing to take a look at pretty much anyone, took an experimental team to Central America.
The team featuring the likes of collegians Andy Strouse, Matt Kmosko and Carlos Jaguande and former Duke star Brian Benedict (who came back from three knee operations in 18 months to get a shot on the national team) lost to El Salvador, 2-0, in a friendly played in San Salvador.
(The tour did produce one player: Milutinovic gave his first start to Mike Sorber, who went on to start at the 1994 World Cup.)
Projected El Salvador lineup:
Goalkeepers:1-Dagoberto Portillo (Luis Angel Firpo).
Defenders:2-Xavi Garcia (Luis Angel Firpo), 3-Victor Turcios (ROPS, FIN), 23-Mardoqueo Henriquez (Aguila), 16-Marcelo Posadas (Santa Tecla).
Midfielders: 12-Andres Flores (Isidro Metapan), 7-Darwin Ceren (Juventud Independiente), 6-Richard Menjivar (Atlanta Silverbacks), 8-Osael Romero (Alianza).
Forwards:17-Lester Blanco (Marathon, HON), 11-Rodolfo Zelaya (Alianza).