USA U-20 team headed to World Cup with win against El Salvador

The USA downed El Salvador 2-0 on Saturday night in a winner-take-all playoff in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship to earn a berth in the 2015 U-20 World Cup. Goals from Ben Spencer and Paul Arriola plus a penalty kick save by keeper Zachary Steffen put the USA into the May-June tournament in New Zealand. The Americans will learn their opponents on Feb. 10 after a draw.

The USA has been a consistent presence at the U-20 World Cup since the 1980s, missing just four tournaments in that timespan. But success at the World Cup has been far more elusive — their best finish, 4th place, came way back in 1989, and they have not gone past the quarters since 2007. In a modern low, they also went out with a whimper in 2013, after failing to win a single game as they were hammered by Ghana and Spain. This followed their failure to even make the tourney in 2011.

So, when this team offered up a few echoes of that frustration at the start of qualification, folks were understandably nervous. The USA played Guatemala to a draw and then lost to Panama in a shocker that made their road down under more difficult than it should have been.

But this USA team rebounded strongly, reeling off three straight wins, and the USA punched their ticket in a game in which they rarely looked in danger on Saturday night. Played on a sloppy, scrappy and sodden surface in Montego Bay, Jamaica, this game was rarely pretty, but the Americans dominated virtually every aspect of the match against a cynical El Salvador side that preferred to foul more than attack.

Emerson Hyndman, as he has been for the USA throughout the tournament, was the dynamo in midfield, spraying the ball around and breaking up the rare Salvadoran forays towards Steffen’s net. With Romain Gall and Tommy Thompson running off him up top, and big Ben Spencer acting as a target, Hyndman was able to keep the Salvadorans largely confined to their own half, pulling the central defenders side to side as they tried to shield keeper Carlos Canas.

And Thompson showed the first hint of danger 90 seconds in when he was allowed a shot from close in on the left side, only to drag his shot wide of the far post. Gall would then be set free down the gut in the 13th minute but an ill-judged touch, combined with some truly atrocious turf, allowed Canas to collect the ball gratefully.

An American goal always seemed a question of when, not if, and El Salvador’s habit of tactical fouling finally cost them in the 35th minute. Hyndman sent in a looping free kick that met Spencer, towering above the crowd. He headed his first attempt off the crossbar, but was able to collect his own rebound. With Canas helpless, he simply nodded it to the far corner.

HEAR US OUT

Spencer and Thompson almost added a second before the break on a simple play, with Thompson crossing and finding Spencer’s outstretched boot –€“ but not the net as the ball trickled just wide.

El Salvador wouldn’t have a true shot on goal until the second half, when referee Fernando Guerrero whistled for a penalty after seeing a questionable handball, apparently off Hyndman, in the 50th minute. Jose Villavicencio stepped up to the spot, but put his stuttering attempt too close to Steffen. It was a fine stop by the young keeper, but you have to wonder how much nerves played into it; Villavicencio looked very uncomfortable in his run-up.

The USA would not look back. The American pressure built again with two more near-misses, first when Matthew Miazga saw a diving header palmed off the crossbar by Canas, just after the hour. Then, a backpass eluded Canas, but with Bradford Jamieson racing onto the ball, Bryan Tarnacas slid in to clear the ball off the line.

The game would finally be sealed in the 67th minute when Junior Flores made a darting run through the Salvadoran defense to cross for Jamieson. Jamieson’s first-time volley was well-saved by Canas, but the rebound fell out to Arriola, who skimmed a shot off the legs of William Canales and in. Less charitable scorers might rule that strike an own goal, but there was little question Arriola had put his shot on target.

El Salvador huffed and puffed, but as they had for most of the night, failed to make a true impact. Andres Flores would be shown a straight red in the 79th minute after a foul on Russell Canouse, and that would effectively kill the game.