Expect significant lineup changes, a tactical chess match against a familiar face, and a rugged tone when the US men’s national team close out their Concacaf Nations League group stage vs. El Salvador in Orlando on Monday night (7:30 pm ET | TNT, Universo, Peacock).
A win or draw clinches the Yanks’ place in the CNL semifinals in Las Vegas in June, while Los Cuscatlecos need a win to leapfrog them into first place in Group D of League A. The USMNT are 5W-0L-0D all-time at Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium and haven’t lost to El Salvador in their last 21 meetings.
Yet the Central Americans have put up ferocious resistance in the last few clashes, including two hard-fought 2022 World Cup qualifiers. That’s due in no small part to the tactical variety flashed by their coach, USMNT icon Hugo Perez, a veteran of the 1994 World Cup squad who knows the current US player pool quite well, having worked with many of them as a youth national teams coach.
“[He] always has a very, very clear plan of how he wants to play against teams and play against us. And he's not afraid to change things,” said interim USMNT coach Anthony Hudson of Perez in Sunday’s pregame press conference. “We've got into games where we're fully expecting for him to play a certain way, and he changes it. So he's a very, very good coach. I think that’s the starting point.
“They’re a team that have a really good mentality in terms of just honest, aggressive team, work really hard, clearly believe in what the coach has asked them to do. Which is why in the past, they've always been close games with us. They're always big games for them to play against us.”
Several key players are Salvadoran-Americans and/or play their club soccer in the United States, including MLSers Alex Roldan, Tomas Romero and Eriq Zavaleta, further links between the two programs and nations that add an edge to these matches.
“We have to, as usual, match the intensity, physicality,” said US midfielder Yunus Musah, who started both of last year’s meetings with the Cuscatlecos, a tight 1-0 WCQ win in Columbus and a mud-stained CNL draw in San Salvador. “Our attitude has to be spot on, like we went out there beating Grenada [on Friday], and we have to get the job done really, to get into the semis.”
Former OCSC striker Daryl Dike will hope to get the nod from Hudson in his Orlando homecoming, his first match at Exploria since his multi-million-dollar transfer move to West Bromwich Albion some 14 months ago. On Sunday he spoke vividly of his time in central Florida and the Lions’ role in his upward trajectory since they picked him in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.
“Oscar Pareja was someone who taught me about being more of a complete footballer,” said Dike, “how to use more than just being a big body, how to find things tactically, how to improve my technique, movement in the box and everything. It's something that's carried on into the [English] Championship.
“Thinking back to when I first started playing in Orlando vs. where I am now, I think I have grown so much as a player, just naturally from experience, of course, but from all the different situations I've been in, whether it be at Barnsley, West Brom, different managers, national team, there's been definitely tons of different systems, different tactics and different teachings I've learned that have made me the player I am. And obviously, Orlando City and MLS was the foundation for all of that.”
Hudson’s warm praise for the powerful target man gave the impression he’ll play a role on Monday.
“I've always been a big Dike fan, ever since he was in MLS,” said the coach. “He possesses raw potential. He has special qualities that not all players have in terms of physicality, in terms of the speed, in terms of just like, you watch him, center backs, really, really don’t like playing against him. And one thing I've noticed is – we noticed as a staff – is that his game is improving.
“He's just a player that's just developed. It's very, very clear that he is working on it. The manager there [West Brom’s Carlos Corberan] is working on his game, he's working on his game, and he's becoming a really, really good center forward. … I think he's one of those late developers ... as long as he keeps himself healthy and looks after his body, and he's sensible, I think he's someone that can be a really, really dangerous center forward for the program.”