Could be worse, could be a whole lot better.

There’s your nine-word review of the US men’s national team’s scruffy, jittery but nonetheless riveting 0-0 draw with El Salvador on opening night of Concacaf’s final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying. For those interested in a slightly deeper dive, here are my three main observations from the match.

Regardless of your allegiances, isn’t it nice to have that edge-of-your-seat feeling back again?

1
Welcome to the Octagon(al)

Talent, talent, talent. We’ve been talking about it constantly in the context of this confident, dynamic young USMNT. They’ve got reams and reams of it, enough to earn places at some of Europe’s elite clubs, and that raises the ceiling for this group. And that duly raises expectations:

But talent is only one facet of this matrix, and in this region in particular, it’s not enough in and of itself to earn safe passage to the World Cup. There are levels upon levels to navigate on a night like this, at a feverish cauldron like Estadio Cuscatlan where a proud, passionate fanbase waited in line for hours to pass security COVID-19 checekpoints and sweat out 40 years of national-team frustration on their first return to this stage in over a decade.

That crowd probably blew some microphones as it roared their side on, and the overall environment seemed to give some US players pause. Like David Regis, Timmy Chandler and plenty of others before him, Sergino Dest, for example, fell far short of the level that we’re accustomed to seeing from him in slightly saner European settings, and that’s understandable, to a point. These are the kind of experiences that have to be lived to be learned.

Gio Reyna and captain Tyler Adams, conversely, got more sustained exposure to this sort of setting earlier in their careers, carry an angry, chippy edge to their game at all times and performed like relative veterans here despite their tender ages.

“These games don't rely on quality,” said Adams postgame, after confessing he was “not too dissatisfied, to be honest,” with the result. “These games rely on your mentality and how far you can dig deep and really just give everything.”

2
Credit to the hosts

Perception of opponents tends to be an area of disconnect among USMNT fans and their online discourse, and so it may be again for this game. Whether based on FIFA rankings or previous qualifying cycles or simply the clubs represented on the two rosters, there appears to be a widespread expectation that a “lesser” opponent like El Salvador can and should be swept aside, and that the US are culpable when that doesn’t happen.

No: Give Los Cuscatlecos some credit. Having lived in the US for decades and coached many of their players at the youth national team level, coach Hugo Perez has a deep knowledge of this USMNT side and he put it to good use here.

Setting up a compact 4-4-2 diamond formation, El Salvador protected the gut, working hard to blunt the central-midfield potency of Adams, Weston McKennie and Brenden Aaronson without dropping into a passive shell. Then when they did win back possession, they had the technique to pass through the Yanks’ press and push their lines forward, even if they created few clear looks at Matt Turner’s goal.

When forced to defend deeper, El Salvador kept a disciplined shape and clustered numbers around the danger zones, demanding levels of decisiveness and cleanliness on the ball that the USMNT failed to consistently produce. Which brings us to…

3
Worries up top

As data guru Paul Carr’s traditional postgame xG post indicates, for all the unevenness in their overall display, the visitors had more and clearer chances to score, with Miles Robinson, Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent — who took four shots on the night, none of them on target — spurning the most inviting opportunities.

The USMNT enjoyed a talent advantage in most areas of the pitch here and took advantage of it at times, especially early in both halves. But all the buildup and transition work goes for naught if clinical finishing is not applied at the business end. With relatively few open-play goals against quality opposition over the past few months, the frontline in general and the No. 9 role in particular are areas of concern.

“Really it just boils down to us not executing,” said center back Tim Ream. “There were a lot of sloppy passes and you can blame the field, you can blame the ball, you can blame a lot of things, but with the team we have, the quality we have, the execution just was not there in critical moments, especially in the final third.”

Berhalter was positive, albeit tepidly so, about Sargent and his replacement Jordan Pefok.

“In terms of Josh, I think he had a good start to the game, a couple of good runs behind the backline, was in the penalty box, was occupying space in the penalty box, almost got onto the end of a couple crosses, had a couple good transition moments, I thought in both halves of the game, unfortunately didn't get the goal,” said the coach.

“Jordan came on, you can see he's really dangerous on crossing, was good holding the ball up, I think it’s that speed of play to continue, as it comes into him, to keep the ball moving to the other side of the field, and then into the penalty box. So both of them, we would have liked to see them scoring goals, and we have to look at the chances that they had and evaluate those. But I thought it was an OK performance from both of them.”

Reading between the lines there, I reckon we might see more of Pefok against Canada in Nashville on Sunday (8 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, TUDN in US, One Soccer in Canada), and perhaps even a debut cameo for FC Dallas sensation Ricardo Pepi as well.