The USMNT has only two more games together before they step to Wales in Qatar to begin their World Cup run in November. Both of those unannounced September fixtures will be friendlies, which means that last night’s Nations League game against El Salvador was the final competitive game the United States will play until November. Unfortunately, fans that tuned into Tuesday night’s game to see how the squad is looking and what sort of tactical wrinkles Gregg Berhalter would introduce, as well as anyone who wanted to watch something easily identifiable as a soccer game, were disappointed. Heavy rain and an Agincourt-ass playing surface rendered things like completing multiple passes in a row and running physical impossibilities. Instead, the game became a mudfight, which is not to say that we learned nothing. The Americans fielded an A-Team, and despite drawing, showed some real heart.
The Nations League is firmly in the scrub tier of CONCACAF tournaments. Last year’s final was a tremendous and tremendously ugly game of soccer that only mattered because its calendar slot was more conducive to playing the best version of the USMNT than the Gold Cup. The USMNT’s pair of matches against Grenada and El Salvador were technically part of a group stage that won’t conclude until March 2023, when the USMNT will probably be playing a completely different set of guys as they start another long World Cup cycle. So there were technical stakes for the game, just small ones. That’s why it was surprising to see Berhalter play the healthy core of the best XI, featuring Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, Antontee Robinson, and Yunus Musah. Why risk long-term injury a few months before the World Cup for an essentially meaningless game in the Salvadoran mud? Apparently because it builds character.
The game was a slog from kickoff. Passes either fell dead into a mud puddle or weirdly skipped off the pooling water atop the chewed-up playing surface. Players would pelt longballs forward, knowing that the ball would probably hit the turf and die. The USMNT played in white kits, which was either a hilarious oversight or a pretty good bit. The closest anyone got to scoring in the first half hour was when Tim Weah lined up for a bicycle kick off a corner; he smacked someone in the face. Estadio Cuscatlan hosted a concert over the weekend, and heavy rains on Tuesday turned the field into soup. This is what Ethan Horvath’s goal looked like before the game started.
To their credit, El Salvador seemed more hyped up to play in the rotten conditions, and they opened the scoring with the fittingly moronic goal this game deserved. I think this one bounced off of Reggie Cannon’s leg.
Somehow, Pulisic wound up playing the entire game, and the USMNT clearly drove for the win in the second half. Despite the paying surface’s increasing slushification, Weston McKennie got some second-half burn, and the USMNT was building up some serious momentum until the 70th minute, when the game transitioned from an entertaining yet boring mess into a classic CONCACAF night. Paul Arriola came on in the 61st minute, and he only needed nine minutes of work to get warmed up to make his biggest contribution of the game: a straight red card in the 70th minute for a bad tackle. This infuriated the USMNT, who’d seen most of the game’s calls go against them and had missed like four great goalscoring opportunities, and Tyler Adams nearly ignited a brawl a few minutes later with this horse collar tackle.
To the limited degree that one can draw any meaningful conclusions from this stupid game, we did learn that Cameron Carter-Vickers has made serious strides and should be on the plane to Qatar. The El Salvador game was also another affirmation that Yunus Musah is the real deal. He was comfortably the USMNT’s best player on the night, pulling off two full-field runs and generally appearing to be the only player on the pitch whose running abilities were unaffected by the conditions. He was everywhere, on both ends of the field, and he forced El Salvador into a red card a few minutes after the Adams scuffle, for what was essentially pass interference.
Things continued in this manner for some time. The US was denied a clear penalty, they forced a bunch of great saves, and it seemed like they would have fought this hard with their best players to lose 1-0. Then, the clock struck 90, and as if crossing that temporal barrier unlocked a new level of depravity for the game to sink to, the USMNT instantly equalized. Berhalter sprinted into the celebration scrum to scream at his team for celebrating the tying goal when there were still six minutes left to get the winner, but the game was clearly over at this point. Somehow nobody got injured, which is a better result than the 1-1 draw.
Berhalter and the team valued their mud baptism for its team-building purposes. “The group grows with moments like this,” he said afterwards. “Jordan Morris walks into the locker room, everyone starts to cheer. Everyone’s uniform is a dark brown color, the shoes are a mess, the staff is all dirty. And this is what builds teams.” I think he’s got a point. Pulisic has a reputation as a glass cannon, the sort of player not built for the rigor of the highest level of soccer. He made a few pretty plays, but simply being out there and getting muddy alongside his team sent a clear message that he savors any opportunity to play for the US and will not ask for special treatment, even if it’s the objectively correct thing to do. That kind of tone-setting really matters, and for a group that clearly grew so much during a difficult qualifying campaign and will go to Qatar as the youngest team in the field, sharpening yourselves and cohering as a unit like that can’t be undersold as meaningless. Also, if the fields in Qatar somehow get swamped, no team will be more prepared than the USMNT.