National Writer: Charles Boehm

Not perfect, but task complete: USMNT grind toward Qatar 2022 with El Salvador win

After Antonee “Jedi” Robinson finally found the breakthrough, lashing the game’s only goal past Mario González in the 52nd minute to nudge the US men’s national team ahead of El Salvador, the Fulham left back wheeled away towards the corner flag to execute his now-signature backflip as his teammates raced to join him – then suddenly clutched at the back of his leg, the dreaded universal sign of a hamstring injury.

But Robinson was just entering the second phase of his celebration, a faux muscle strain segueing into a cheeky little dance delivered with a grin, inspired by the flamboyant footwork of a Kenyan player that went viral a few years ago.

“He kind of scared me because I thought he pulled his hammy,” Tim Weah, whose saved shot triggered the goal sequence, admitted postgame. “But you know, it all worked out in the end.”

That might just sum up the USMNT’s 1-0 World Cup qualifying win at Columbus’ Field.

The hosts and favorites controlled most of the possession and created enough scoring chances to stack up an expected-goals number nearly 15 times that of Los Cuscatlecos. Yet time and again they failed to finish, allowing their tenacious, technical guests to hang on and create danger on their efficient forays forward. The US didn’t really seem assured of the victory until the final whistle, while captain and talisman Christian Pulisic turned in one of the most anonymous performances of his USMNT career.

With just five Octagonal matches remaining as Qatar 2022 looms ever closer, however, three points will do the Yanks just fine, as a results-centric mindset inevitably outweighs deeper concerns for the time being. They remain second in the Octagonal table, accruing 18 points from nine games (5W-1L-3D record) before a crucial test Sunday at table-leaders Canada (3:05 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+).

“I think we lacked connection in our pressing. There was too often too much space between our lines; we weren’t able to make that next play on the pass and the pressure was broken,” noted manager Gregg Berhalter postgame. “The ambition to play forward and get behind them, what was missing from the 90 minutes – we had it in spurts but overall I think we could have done that much better. The big picture of this game is we're still in very good position in World Cup qualifying. The three points were vital at home and we achieved that.”

The coach himself injected a new wrinkle into his attack for this occasion, surprising many with his selection of Jesus Ferreira ahead of Ricardo Pepi in the starting No. 9 role, the first career WCQ start for the FC Dallas star and a shift towards his more nuanced interpretation of that position than his former club teammate’s.

While Ferreira failed to convert a few inviting looks in the early going that would have dramatically changed the game’s tenor, Berhalter was mostly effusive with his praise.

“He had enough chances to score a couple goals. So that's the most important thing. If he didn't have any chances in the game, I would have been concerned. But he did have chances, and I think it's just a matter of him being able to finish those off,” Berhalter said of Ferreira. “Regarding his linkup play, I thought it was excellent. And a number of times he was setting players up, as we expected him to do. So overall, although we might only try to judge No. 9s by their goal production, I still think he had a solid performance.”

Berhalter could afford to lodge quibbles about evaluation metrics for his forward because he once again received key attacking contributions from a very different spot.

With Robinson’s second strike of the Ocho, USMNT fullbacks have now scored three goals and notched three assists in this qualification campaign. That’s a crucial quantity, given that the Yanks have still failed to score from a set piece – usually a trump card for the program – in this cycle and no one has scored more goals than Pepi’s three, the most recent of which came back in October against Jamaica.

Add that to the tempo-setting muscle of the “MMA” central-midfield combo of Weston McKennie – who was quietly excellent on this night – Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams, and this team’s floor is considerably higher than past vintages.

“We call the fullbacks our superpower of our team,” declared Berhalter. “We do that because they produce, they give assists and goals. If you look at World Cup qualifying so far, our fullbacks have contributed heavily. Sergino [Dest] has a goal and assists, Antonee Robinson has goals and assists, DeAndre Yedlin has an assist. Our fullbacks are great for us and they're a big part of how we play, especially when we're dropping our midfielders lower. They're really important.”

Robinson himself tried to keep the balance between pragmatism and self-criticism, nodding to the unique circumstances of this rare winter window and the bigger-picture priority of making one dogged step forward after another.

“It wasn't the prettiest game. And there was times when we played good football, times when we just had to kind of dig out chances that we didn't put away. But we got the win and we’re one step closer to our goal of qualifying for the World Cup,” said the English-American dual national.

“Everyone's at different stages, some lads are in preseason, some lads have had a heavy fixture period, myself included. And it's our first international game since the last window, so it was never going to be [that] we turn up with the short time that we've had to prepare and just play an amazing game of football and win 6-0. It was always going to be a tough, tight affair, and they made it difficult for us. They were aggressive, they sat tight,” he continued.

“We had to stay strong, stay resilient to keep a clean sheet, and that's massive for us going forward. They're the games that we have to keep winning if we want to qualify.”