Photo: Courtesy of Sporting News/AP Photo
Just over one minute into their final group stage match, the United States had wiped the taste of a 2-0 loss to Canada from their memories. Brek Shea fought off two defenders on the left touch line before beating a third man and whipping a waist-high cross into the box. Terrence Boyd, in his first start of the tournament, stuck a leg out and volleyed in the opener from six yards out.
Hot out of the gate
It was an audacious start from an American side that was thoroughly outplayed by Canada two nights prior, but a fast start means little when you can’t hold it.
The U.S. hardly went into a shell; shells have structure and shape while the Americans had little more than eleven wide-eyed wanderers. The blue shirts of El Salvador were no more organized, but they found weaknesses and pressed them hard. Having spent the first quarter of the match working down the American right, El Salvador soon figured out that both fullbacks were equally vulnerable. They played rough and fast and, while barely looking the better side, their pace and willingness to hit the deck at the sight of a shadow payed dividends in the 34th minute.
The scoreline flips
A corner from the left saw Kofi Sarkodie easily beaten at the near post and Bill Hamid was left with no chance.
An even score was what the game deserved, but 135 minutes of subpar soccer often means the mistakes come in bunches. And only moments after the match was tied, it wasn’t.
Perry Kitchen bungled a bouncing trap and El Salvador broke into the final third. When the shot came in low and wide, the Americans turned off. Andres Flores did not. Sprinting in the back side, he slammed the ball past Bill Hamid as the U.S. players stood, mouths agape.
Hamid goes down
Hamid would remain on the field long enough to clear one more ball out of his box before being replaced by Sean Johnson. The DC United goalie picked up an innocuous-looking ankle tweak moving laterally, and it turned out to mean the end of his night.
And if you think Hamid’s injury won’t be a big factor in the outcome, you don’t know Scott Carson.
Canada had exposed Mix Diskerud and Jared Jeffrey as inconsistent invisibles under high pressure; now El Salvador scraped the shine from the U.S. defense for forty-five minutes. When the first half whistle rang out, the Americans had two choices: Pick their heads up or accept that Canada’s high pressure defense had rattled them right out of the Olympic qualifiers.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half offered few positive signs. It was unclear if Diskerud had even returned from the locker room, Kofi Sarkodie had traded his boots for swooshed bricks, and Joe Corona was winning whatever game of hide-and-seek he was playing. As in the Canada match, Brek Shea was being marked out of the game, El Salvador understanding that Jorge Villafana would be slow to join the attack.
All in Adu time
Thusly did Freddy Adu find his ship upon emerging from his slumber to grab the wheel. Though he started brightly, Adu found touches hard to come by as Diskerud and Sarkodie showed nerves and preferred long balls to triangles.
But in three minutes, the U.S. captain conjured a pair of finely worked goals to put his team in front.
Collecting the ball on the edge of the box, Adu shook free of his marker and slid a well-weighted pass into Terrence Boyd’s path as the striker broke down the right channel. Boyd side-footed a near post shot around a charging Cuellar.
In the 68th minute, Adu was at it again. Diskerud discovered his confidence just in time to make a driving run towards the top of the box where he dished wide to his captain. Forced onto his right foot all night, Adu accepted his fate and curled a soft cross onto Joe Corona’s head where a deft flick of the neck easily beat Cuellar.
Now the United States found their long-lost rhythm. It wasn’t the dominance of Cuba victory, but it was ownership of pace and flow not seen since that opening night. Diskerud dropped deep with Okugo and the two midfielders spread the ball around, keeping Adu and Shea involved. A fine shot from thirty yards out was the closest El Salvador got, and Johnson smothered the blast easily.
Sean Johnson… wow
With moments left, the Americans merely had to hold the ball in a corner and they were through to the semifinals. Inexplicably, Jorge Vollafana blooped a wimpy cross into the teeth of the El Salvadorian defense, and the break was on. Now Flores was cutting across the formation, right to left. Flores winding up for a left-footed strike. He didn’t get all of it. Johnson down. The ball somehow loose, bouncing at an odd angle… into the net. In the 96th minute.
El Salvador needed a tie to advance. The blue shirts went crazy. Freddy Adu, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams return to the Union for the rest of the season.
Which raises the question: Is there a locker room in America that needs a win more than the home side at PPL?