BALTIMORE – Rodolfo Zelaya was never going to sneak up on anyone in CONCACAF during this summer’s Gold Cup. Nobody paying attention, that is.
Not after he scored twice in just three starts for El Salvador during World Cup qualifying, a fitting follow up to his four goals during the 2011 Gold Cup. And especially not after La Selecta’s lone goalscorer during the 2013 edition wowed observers with a trio of strikes to lead his side to a quarterfinal matchup with the heavily favored United States (4 pm ET, Fox/Univision, Live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
But the biggest question facing the 25-year-old these days – apart from whether he’ll be able to lead El Salvador to an improbable upset against the US – is where he’ll play his club ball once his contract with San Salvador side Alianza FC expires at the end of the year.
“I’m happy with the tournament I’m playing personally, and I still have six months left in my contract,” Zelaya told reporters on Saturday. “We will see what happens after the Gold Cup, the goal of every Salvadoran player is to play abroad and I hope there is a chance.”
Could that chance come in Major League Soccer?
There’s no doubt the league’s 19 teams scout the tournament for the next wave of CONCACAF talent, and Zelaya already has the stamp of approval from MLS’ most decorated player.
That would be Landon Donovan, who is the American most feared by the Salvadorans based on repeated mentions during their pregame conference, and a keen observer of his on-form opponent.
“Obviously, Zelaya has been very good throughout the tournament,” Donovan said. “In my opinion, one of the best players.”
US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann echoed his striker’s thoughts, mentioning Zelaya by name when asked who his side must key on come Sunday.
The challenge is that the forward, who’s best in a second striker role, can hurt you in a variety of ways. He scored a brilliant free kick against Trinidad & Tobago, perhaps the goal of the tournament so far, before ensuring his side a draw with a lung-busting run finished off by a header.
Zelaya then hit the post multiple times against Haiti in a must-win match for El Salvador before tucking home the game-winner after his penalty attempt was saved but only far enough to allow for a simple rebound finish.
Chances won’t be easy to come by against the US, however, and an emphasis on defensive organization may mean Zelaya will labor much of the match with little support.
Still, it’s clear he has the ability to provide a moment of magic – and that may be all plucky El Salvador need in front of a raucous crowd of more than 70,000, most expected to be firmly behind Los Cuscatlecos.
“We need to continue playing the way we’ve been playing, with intelligence, trying not to make many mistakes against this team [the US] that knows how to take advantage of mistakes,” Zelaya said. “We have good players, a great coaching staff and we hope to have a good game tomorrow and hopefully it is us who pass [to the next round].”