It was a slow, tactical battle between the US men’s national team and El Salvador Monday evening at Exploria Stadium in Orlando. With a trip to the Concacaf Nations League semifinals on the line (the US needing a draw or win; El Salvador needing a win), the visitors looked to chop the game up for the first half and were largely successful, holding most of the US players to average-at-best performances.
But in the second half, it was Weston McKennie and super-sub Ricardo Pepi who found the quality to break the deadlock, combining for the game's lone goal as the US topped Concacaf Nations League A, Group D – earning a semifinal spot courtesy of a 1-0 win.
Both teams secured qualification for this summer's Gold Cup in their previous Nations League matches.
Turner was largely unbothered in the match, with El Salvador only logging four shots, but the Arsenal (by way of New England Revolution) goalkeeper came up big when he needed to with a 2nd-minute save to keep La Selecta off the board.
Robinson was solid in defending throughout the match, but a bit jumpy on the ball at times. He's had better outings going forward, but the Fulham left back put in a professional showing en route to the clean sheet.
In his first USMNT appearance since undergoing surgery on his Achilles more than 10 months ago, Robinson performed well, particularly in the second half when, as the US pressed higher up the pitch, the Atlanta United center back showed off his recovery speed to snuff out multiple El Salvador counters.
Steady as always, Ream kept the backline organized and dominant for most of the match, with only the occasional wobble allowing El Salvador any sniffs on goal.
Dest provided his usual flair going forward down the right flank, but couldn't find the quality when he needed it most, narrowly over-hitting a cross to Christian Pulisic that could've given the US their first goal. The AC Milan fullback has more in his toolbox than he showed tonight.
Musah had a few bright moments on the ball and provided his usual energy in the midfield, covering great amounts of ground in both attack and defense. Ultimately though, El Salvador's compact shape prevented the Valencia midfielder from finding much of the game in his 71 minutes of play.
McKennie more than made up for missing a chance to score at the end of the first half with his perfectly-weighted through ball to assist Pepi's go-ahead goal. In addition to the assist, McKennie was the US' most consistent player in build-up play, doing well to find passing lanes and linking the team from back to front.
When the rest of the team was struggling for composure through the first 60 minutes of the match, Reyna's calm creativity was a bright spot. If his 46th-minute shot had hit the back of the net instead of the post, he would have likely been the MOTM.
Zendejas kept himself busy in his 60-minute runout, featuring heavily in the US' right-side dominant attack. It wasn't a flawless outing, but the Club América winger did well on the dribble to win dangerous free kicks and in combination play to free Dest down the right flank multiple times.
The former Orlando City SC player who made a big-money transfer to the English Championship's West Brom in January 2022 provided solid link-up play, using his strong frame to win fouls and hold the ball up. In the end, though, Dike couldn't find the daylight to make much impact in front of net.
Pulisic was unfortunate not to get an assist with a perfectly-hit set piece to McKennie that gave the Leeds United midfielder a free header at the back post. Besides that, the Chelsea winger provided his usual bright play driving the team forward on the dribble in transition moments and staying involved in scoring chances throughout the match.
It wasn't an outing that will wow anybody, particularly with the US looking flat-footed for the first 45 minutes. But credit where credit's due: Hudson pushed his wingers higher up the pitch to pin El Salvador back in the second half, and that made all the difference in helping the Stars and Stripes gain the momentum needed to grab the winning goal.
It doesn't get much better than scoring two minutes into your substitute shift. Beyond the smartly-timed run off the center back's shoulder to get free on the break, the former FC Dallas No. 9 provided a classy finish that will surely help his case in the ongoing battle for the US' starting striker job.
Aaronson helped see out the game with his usual top-notch work rate and fleet-footed movement, both on and off the ball.
Taylor Booth made sure his name will still be front-of-mind for future international windows with a strong substitute appearance that saw him run wild down the right flank, earning two key passes in only 18 minutes of play. The Utrecht midfielder, who appears to be a hot commodity on the transfer market, is one to watch for the future.
De la Torre had a few slip-ups in possession, but made up for it with his fantastic sense for tempo and creative buildup. The Celta de Vigo midfielder grew more influential in the match in the final minutes, helping to keep the US on the front foot to the end.
Thrown on in second-half stoppage time, the midfielder from Brazil's Internacional didn't get a chance to make an impact.