United States
No Christian Pulisic, but USMNT confident heading into El Salvador match
United States

No Christian Pulisic, but USMNT confident heading into El Salvador match

Published Sep. 2, 2021 1:39 p.m. ET

By Doug McIntyre 
FOX Sports Soccer Writer 

It’s not exactly noteworthy for athletes to say they expect to win, the way just about every member of the United States men’s national team has in the days leading up to Thursday’s 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying opener at El Salvador

Confidence is a job requirement. Results are the only thing that matters.

But winning away from home in qualifying in the CONCACAF region that encompasses North and Central America and the Caribbean has long proven difficult, even against seemingly inferior competition. 


When the USMNT failed to make the cut for the World Cup four years ago — their first miss in more than three decades — they did so without winning one of their five final-round matches on the road, including the catastrophic defeat in Trinidad that ultimately sealed their fate.

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Talk, in other words, is cheap.

"The hard thing to do is actually do it," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said on the eve of the El Salvador contest. "We know our record away from home traditionally hasn’t been great."

The Americans have never won a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica or Mexico, where they’ll travel later in this 14-game round-robin tournament that has been expanded by two teams and condensed into seven months (from 18) because of the global coronavirus pandemic. 

Between the grueling travel, oppressive weather and sometimes terrible field conditions and officiating, the Americans' success rate in other outposts is only marginally better. The U.S., though, has posted a 2W-0L-2T mark in San Salvador, the site of Thursday’s contest.

Adding to this particular challenge, the U.S will be without headliner Christian Pulisic, who is still regaining fitness after testing positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago, and starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who's out due to back spasms.

Still, this young team has every right to be confident. 

It’s coming off a summer in which it won two CONCACAF events — the Gold Cup and Nations League. Even without Chelsea’s Pulisic and Manchester City’s Steffen, the now 23-man roster boasts key contributors with some of the sport’s leading clubs. And the almost completely revamped squad — just five holdovers remain from 2017 — is desperate to restore pride to the program after the debacle four years ago.

"One thing that gives me confidence is you have guys on the team that are playing for really high-level clubs, and their expectation is to win every single game they’re in. Barcelona can’t lose a game. Juventus can’t lose a game," Berhalter said. "I think that does help. 

"Having said that, this is a different animal. CONCACAF qualifying is not UEFA Champions League. Embracing the physicality, the competitiveness in these games is extremely important to be successful.

"I think we have the quality. Now it’s about: Do we have the right mentality?"

Despite the current group’s lack of experience in the sort of environment they’ll face Thursday, the Americans seem to be aware of what sort of resistance to expect from the hosts at sold-out Estadio Cuscatlan.

"We need to be prepared for a challenge, for a battle," midfielder Tyler Adams said. "It might not be pretty football. We’re gonna have to win our duels. These guys are going to be hungry."

Added fellow midfielder Weston McKennie: "I think we know kind of what it’s gonna be like."

Under manager (and former USMNT midfielder) Hugo Perez, El Salvador’s program has improved. The Salvadorans impressed at the Gold Cup, advancing to the knockout stage. Still, on paper at least, they are among the weakest of the Americans' seven qualifying foes. The U.S. won its last match there, in 2009, although it had to overcome an early 2-0 deficit to do it.

Even without Pulisic, this is a winnable match. Matt Turner, named the top keeper at the Gold Cup, will start in the net. Brenden Aaronson will probably replace Pulisic on the left wing, with Giovanni Reyna on the opposite side. Adams and Juve’s McKennie are expected to hold down the middle of the field in front of veteran central defender John Brooks and fast-rising newcomer Miles Robinson, with Barca’s Sergino Dest at right back. 

The hope is to have Pulisic and Steffen back for Game 2. 

"We have a clear plan for these first two games," Berhalter said. "And I’d say we’d have a plan in pencil for the third game."

Not only would three points Thursday send a message that this revamped U.S. team won’t be haunted by the ghosts of four years ago, it would build momentum and take some of the pressure off heading into Sunday’s home tilt against Canada in Nashville (8 p.m. ET, FS1 and the FOX Sports App) and next week’s trip to Honduras.

The goal is to emerge victorious from all three. Yes, the Americans know the history. They’ve heard all about the challenges. But they believe they have the will as well as the talent to flip the script.

"Right off the bat we have two opportunities to win two games away, and that puts us obviously in a good position," Adams said. "We’re looking for a nine-point week, bottom line."

Easier said than done.

One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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