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The young Americans got a point. And an eye-opener.
It's one thing for U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter to tell his players, most of whom had never played in a World Cup qualifier before, how difficult the Concacaf games are. The packed stadiums. The boisterous fans. The patchy fields. The debris that's thrown. The feisty opponents punching above their weight.
It's quite another to experience it, and now the Americans have.
The USMNT salvaged a tie against a scrappy El Salvador team Thursday night, coming away with a point after squandering a handful of good chances. But considering only Mexico won its opener in the final round of Concacaf qualifying, the 0-0 result in San Salvador could have been much worse.
"All these games are going to be hard-fought," said Berhalter, who knew what to expect, having experienced World Cup qualifying as a player. "Any intention of us coming here and winning 3-0, it was going to be really challenging. They’re dog fights.
"Much as I wanted to win this game, and we did want to this game and the attitude and the play was to win the game, we’ll take the point and move on."
The U.S. plays Canada on Sunday in Nashville. The USMNT wraps up this first qualifying window with a game in Honduras on Wednesday.
American soccer fans still haven't recovered from the shock of the USMNT failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. No doubt some will see the tie against El Salvador, a team the U.S. men are 18-1-6 all-time against, as more of the same.
But this team barely resembles that squad. Only six players on the 25-man roster had played in a World Cup qualifier, and one of them, Christian Pulisic, was back in Nashville trying to regain his fitness after a bout with COVID-19.
While this group of Americans is loaded with talent -- 10 are on European teams that are still playing in the Champions League, and they defeated archrival Mexico for the titles in two different tournaments this summer -- they are inexperienced. Especially in this setting.
"Gio taking that corner kick. When he’s playing in Dortmund, he’s not getting hit with water bottles," Tyler Adams said, referring to Gio Reyna being showered by debris despite being flanked by security with riot shields.
"(These games) are intense," Adams added. "They're feisty. They're gritty."
That said, the Americans did have their chances. Kellyn Acosta had a shot in the 76th that Mario Gonzalez swatted off the post. Three minutes earlier, Reyna fed Weston McKennie in front of the goal, and McKennie probably would have scored had his head been up rather than down. Instead, the ball bounced off the grass and wide of the goal.
El Salvador’s best chance came in the 57th, when Eriq Zavaleta had a header from close range off a corner kick. But Matt Turner, playing because Zack Steffen was out with back spasms, was able to smother the ball.
"Guys felt we had more than enough to win the game," Tim Ream said. "We kept a clean sheet away from home and created a few half-chances that I think a lot of guys would have back if they could.
"Disappointed," he added. "But in saying that, if you're not going to win the game you can’t lose it, and we did that."
The Americans started fast, with Reyna and Miles Robinson both having good chances in the first nine minutes. Reyna rustled the side of the net in the third, and Robinson’s header was just a touch too high in the ninth.
It seemed as if it was only a matter of time before the USMNT got a goal, which wouldn’t have been a surprise. The United States had never lost to El Salvador in World Cup qualifying, and just once in the teams’ previous 24 meetings.
That lone loss came way back in 1992, when reaching the World Cup wasn’t considered a given for the USMNT.
But this is not the same El Salvador team the Americans are used to facing.
Coached by Hugo Perez, who played for the United States in the 1994 World Cup, and drawing players from all over the world, El Salvador has improved quickly. It was impressive against Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup, where it reached the quarterfinals.
And after that first 10 minutes, it settled down and gave the Americans all they could handle. If not for troubles finishing, El Salvador would have had the USMNT scrambling.
But Ronald Rodriguez’s header off a corner in the 17th sailed just over the crossbar, and a shot in the 33rd by Alex Roldan – whose brother, Cristian, plays for the USMNT – was a little too wide.
This was just the first of 14 qualifiers. While the Americans had talked about a "nine-point week," that was probably overly optimistic. Especially for a group new to the process.
Now, however, they know exactly what they're up against.
"These games don’t rely on quality," Adams said. "They rely on mentality."
The USMNT had better have the right one, or this new team won't fare any better than the old one.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT, El Salvador play to tie in Concacaf World Cup qualifying opener