Late Surge in El Salvador Earns Point for USA

[HEXAGONAL] The contrast at Estadio Cuscatalan couldn't have been more stark; fans in near-delirium raining noise and passion on two sets of intense yet focused players. On the faces of one set of players shone the dreams and hopes of a nation, of which just 31,000 had been admitted to the stadium as countless radios and televisions sufficed for the rest. In the other set of players could be detected a firm resolve to get the job done, to take care of business.

In the end, the Americans did get the job done, albeit in excruciatingly slim fashion, and in rallying with goals by Jozy Altidore and Frankie Hejduk to convert a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 tie earned plaudits for their pluck rather than high praise for their play. Not for the first time did a U.S. team, while steeped in talent and experience, leave it late in Central America to wield its will.

The Salvadorans sparked to life after a benign 15 minutes to score first, and pumped by a frenzied crowd, played enough skillful yet direct soccer to frazzle the Americans on numerous occasions. Using different combinations in different parts of the field, the Salvadorans quickly traded short balls while cutting and darting in between foes or behind them, forcing missed tackles or bad decisions. They sliced up the U.S. defense with their short game, yet also netted a second goal with a deep cross of such quality to delight any advocate of flank play.

The confident, rhythmic play by which the USA had defeated Mexico flared briefly and then disappeared, engulfed by a roaring crowd saluting the clever, intelligent play of its team. Once former D.C. United striker Eliseo Quintanilla slipped behind the U.S back line, following slick interplay from Osael Romero and Rodolfo Zelaya, to drill a low shot past Brad Guzan, the Salvadorans soared on the fervor of their fans.

A bad touch by DaMarcus Beasley enabled El Salvador to sweep forward, yet over the next 70 yards numerous Americans could have intervened but didn't. The U.S. midfield was bypassed as the ball was played to the right, and a mis-timed tackle by Carlos Bocanegra opened a hole that Quintanilla slid inside left back Heath Pearce to fill.

El Salvador came down the right side again later in the first half to create another chance, yet it began when Julio Martinez outjumped Pearce and knocked a ball down for Romero to collect and drill low at goal. Guzan got his right glove down in time to deflect it for a corner.

The Americans struggled to hold the ball in midfield, and attempts by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to link with Brian Ching with combination play seldom came off. They did get a chance on a deflected ball that Dempsey steered towards goal with an overhead kick and Donovan hit first-time right at keeper Miguel Montes, but with touches and timing out of sync, they had to rely on fortunate bounces and weren't getting many of them.

Ching headed home a free kick delivered by Beasley in the final minutes of the first half but a very sharp-eyed referee's assistant had spotted him just a shade offside when the kick was taken.

Early in the second half, lively left midfielder Cristian Castillo jazzed up the crowd by twisting, faking, and weaving at Hejduk, who held his ground well. Nothing came of the encounter yet it typified how much El Salvador had upstaged the USA, and after a couple of tepid American attacks yielded long-range shots by midfield partners Sacha Kljestan (over the bar) and Michael Bradley (right to the keeper), Castillo got the best of Hejduk when it counted.

Zelaya got past Beasley on the right flank and with nobody near enough to challenge him swerved a cross into the goalmouth for Castillo to power home despite the leap of Hedjuk. There were just 18 minutes remaining. U.S. coach Bob Bradley used his second sub, midfielder Jose Francisco Torres, to join forward Jozy Altidore, who had entered in the 61 st minute. When Altidore replaced Pearce, Beasley had moved to left back, and left the goal line exposed for Zelaya to exploit.

Salvadoran goalkeeper Montes, who'd been injured earlier in the match, also came off in favor of Jose Juan Gomez.

The Americans continued the more direct approach they'd adopted in the second half and the tiring Salvadorans, perhaps sensing the monumental victory that awaited them, lost their command. Beasley drove a diagonal ball forward that Dempsey headed to Ching, who pivoted and slid the ball to the right and into the path of Hejduk, who hit it first-time as Dempsey darted to the near post. The cross cleared his run and Altidore, at the far post, nailed it past Gomez.

Several Salvadoran players had gone down in addition to Montes, to either recover from collisions or milk the clock, and the delays continued. Martinez had to be stretchered off after running into Torres, and the Americans took advantage of the disjointed hosts to pin them in their final half of the field to earn free kicks and corners.

Set plays hadn't produced much for the USA, yet in the 88 th minute, defender Marvin Gonzalez, stationed at the near post, headed Donovan's corner high into the air. As it dropped at the far post, Hejduk jumped above a crowd of players to head it into the net, and raced to the sideline in celebration as a stadium went mute.

Two more chances resulted during more than seven minutes of stoppage time. Altidore played a ball that Ching drove on goal and Gomez saved, and a bike by Ching required a saving header from defender Mardoqueo Henriquez. While a point had been earned, a lesson about what awaits on the road in the Hexagonal had been learned.

Concacaf, World Cup Qualifying; Final Round
March 28 in San Salvador
El Salvador 2 USA 2.
Goals: Quintanilla (Romero) 15, Castillo (Zelaya) 72; Altidore (Hejduk) 77, Hejduk 88.

El Salvador -- Montes (Gomez, 75), Salazar, Gonzalez, Henriquez, Pacheco, Martinez, Sanchez, Castillo, Romero, Quintanilla (Alas, 82), Zelaya (Ayala, 80).

USA - Guzan, Hejduk, Califf, Bocanegra, Pearce (Altidore, 61), Kljestan (Torres, 72), Bradley (Edu, 95+), Donovan, Beasley, Ching, Dempsey.

Stats: El Salvador/USA
Shots on Goal: 3/8
Saves: 6/1
Corner Kicks: 6/4
Fouls: 8/12
Offside: 0/1

Yellow cards: El Salvador - Castillo 57, Quintanilla 82; USA -- Bradley 56.

Attendance: 30,500

Referee: Benito Archundia (MEX)
Assistant Referee 1: Hector Delgadillo (MEX)
Assistant Referee 2: Marvin Torrentera (MEX)
Fourth Official: Walter Lopez (MEX)
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