Tied at zero through 45 minutes with no shots on goal, there wasn’t a single United States men’s national team fan not thinking, “oh no, here we go again.” A draw at home against less-talented El Salvador would have elevated the stakes for the remaining two games this CONCACAF World Cup qualifying window.
Then came Antonee Robinson.
Similar to his second-half equalizer in the USMNT’s third qualifier last September in Honduras, Robinson scored on a second-chance opportunity to give the Americans the go-ahead goal in the 52nd minute and kept them well positioned to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November.
Winger Tim Weah had his initial shot stopped by goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez. The ball came down to striker Jesús Ferreira in the middle of the box and he headed the ball over to Robinson, who smashed the ball into the lower right corner before celebrating with an emphatic cartwheel and backflip.
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The USMNT was far from at the top of its game but was good enough to defeat El Salvador 1-0 at Lower.com Field in the ninth of 14 World Cup qualifiers. The U.S. produced a few chances in the first half but was able to penetrate the El Salvador back line much more in the second half.
"It wasn't the prettiest game," Robinson said. "There were times we played good football, times when we just had to kind of dig out chances we didn't put away, but we got the win. We're one step closer to our goal of qualifying for the World Cup."
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said his team could have done a better job pressing on defense and finishing chances, but was encouraged that they created some early opportunities.
"I wouldn't say this was our best game. We didn't finish enough of our chances that we had," Berhalter said. "But regarding the goals coming in the first or second half, we had enough chances in the first half to score goals. That's what I'm happy with."
Midfielder Weston McKennie was dominant through 90 minutes, often propelling the Americans into the attack with excellent through balls and his ability to escape pressure when hounded by El Salvador defenders.
In his first start with the national team since being injured against Honduras in early September, playmaker Christian Pulisic did not have much of an impact on the game. He had a quality chance inside the first 20 minutes that was blocked at the edge of the box, but Pulisic often dribbled into multiple defenders and gave away the ball far too many times.
Pulisic was the first player taken off the field for substitute Brendan Aaronson in the 64th minute. Berhalter said he liked Pulisic's energy, at the same time admitted the U.S. needs to find ways to get him in more scoring positions.
"It's just about him finding his top form and really finding ways to get him in front of goal because that's really where he shines," Berhalter said. "When he's in front of the penalty box is when he does his best work."
The U.S. controlled possession throughout and combined well in the middle of the field, but ultimately struggled to finish their chances.
In the first half, the U.S. had 65% possession, completed 92.2% of its passes and had eight chances but couldn’t put a shot on frame. The omission of Ricardo Pepi in favor of Ferreira from the starting lineup left the U.S. without a target forward on crosses, but crossing was mostly poor throughout the opening 45 minutes.
The USMNT had its best chance of the first half in the 19th minute. On a cross from right back Sergiño Dest, Weah flicked the ball to the back post where Ferreira had an open net from about 6 yards out but missed the net high.
El Salvador had its best chance in the 28th minute when midfielder Alex Roldan had an open shot at the top of the box just to the right of the semicircle, but he dragged it left of a diving Matt Turner.
Once Robinson finished his opportunity, the USMNT dominated the rest of the match and killed any potential opportunity for El Salvador. The Americans finished the night with five shots on goal and 16 chances created. Turner didn't have to make a single save.
"I think the ambition to play forward and get behind them was missing for the 90 minutes," Berhalter said. "We had it in spurts, but overall, I think we could've done that much better."
The USMNT stayed put in second place with 18 points, one point behind Canada, whose win over Honduras brought them to 19 points. The U.S. travels to Hamilton, Ontario, for a huge match at Canada on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET before concluding this window with a home match against Honduras on Wednesday in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: US vs. El Salvador score: Antonee Robinson goal in World Cup qualifier