With just four games left in the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle and only three points separating the top four teams in their qualifying group, the United States understood getting a victory on its home soil would be absolutely critical.
The Americans netted those three points against El Salvador on Saturday night, picking up a 2-1 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium on the strength of a late first-half flurry that saw Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore put in goals five minutes apart.
El Salvador forced a 2-2 draw when the two sides met back in March, in large part because it found a way to take control of the match in the early stages with a heightened attack. With that in mind, the United States pushed into El Salvador's half early and often in the first half.
The Americans had a good shot at getting on the scoreboard in the 28th minute when Charlie Davies made a nice move against Ramon Flores down the left flank, turned the corner and found Dempsey on a precise cross. Dempsey flicked the ball forward on his first touch, but his shot carried wide of the left post.
Another solid scoring chance came for the U.S. in the 30th minute. Landon Donovan lined up for a free kick and curled the ball right to Carlos Bocanegra. With his back to the goal, Bocanegra relied on a backward header over his left shoulder to advance the ball. His shot drifted wide of the right post.
It ended up being El Salvador who struck first, going up 1-0 in the 32nd minute after capitalizing on a defensive mistake by the United States. Jonathan Bornstein made a blind clearance attempt that fell right to Rodolfo Zelaya at the top of the penalty area. Zelaya took advantage of his positioning to feed a cross to Ramon Sanchez at the top of the area. From there, Sanchez headed it right past Howard to hand El Salvador a 1-0 advantage.
The U.S. side nearly found its equalizer in the 35th minute when Davies tracked down a through ball and split two defenders to get off a shot in the box. The ball cleared the wrong side of the far post by just a few inches.
The scoring drought for the U.S. finally met its end in the 41st minute. Donovan set things in motion when he swung a free kick into Dempsey just a few yards up from the near post. Dempsey quickly headed it home alongside the left post to even the score at 1-1.
With the ice broken, adding another goal to the tally proved to be a simple matter. Two minutes into first-half stoppage time, the U.S. seized a lead, going up 2-1 on an acrobatic goal from Altidore. Once again, Donovan initiated the play. With the ball at the near sideline, Donovan curled a high, floating cross to Altidore, who jumped up to greet the ball in mid-air and, in one fluid twisting motion, headed it home inside the left post.
With momentum firmly on their side going into the second half, the Americans continued to put El Salvador on its heels defensively.
Donovan went for the jugular in the 47th minute. Working with acres of space out in the midfield, the all-time leading U.S. scorer took a crack at the net and drilled a shot that grazed the top side of the crossbar. Michael Bradley also sent a ball over the bar in the 53rd minute after collecting a quick pass from Davies and teeing up from the top of the box.
Altidore looked to have tacked on his second goal of the game in the 58th minute when he latched onto a nicely played through ball and, on a one-versus-one with El Salvador keeper Miguel Montes, slotted it perfectly behind Montes. But the goal was waved off by the referee, who ruled that Altidore was offsides on the play, keeping the U.S. from putting the game completely out of reach.
The Americans had another golden chance to tack on a third goal in the 65th minute when Dempsey took on Montes in another one-versus-one challenge. His shot, unleashed after a 30-yard run, was blocked by Montes but deflected back to Jonathan Spector. Once he recovered the ball, Spector tried to combine with Altidore, but the El Salvador defense broke up the play.
Just a short time later, El Salvador gave the U.S. a scare when Zelaya put a ball on frame in the 67th minute. His effort was narrowly turned away.
U.S. 'keeper Tim Howard came up with his biggest save of the night in the 87th minute. Zelaya served a shot in from the right flank to William Reyes in the middle of the penalty area. Reyes fired the ball point blank at Howard, who dove to his right and wrapped up the ball in a timely fashion.
John Coon is a contributor to MLSnet.com.