The United States men's national team are closing in on a spot in Qatar after a 1-0 win over El Salvador on Thursday in World Cup qualifying. The Americans were far from sharp, missed clear chances in the first half yet got a winner early in the second half thanks to Antonee Robinson's fine finish in the box. The Fulham fullback now has two goals in qualifying for the red, white and blue after his 52nd-minute strike.
After entering the day with a 4-3-1 record, the Americans knew they had an opportunity to cushion their lead for one of the three direct spots to the 2022 World Cup, and they got the job done despite not being all that convincing. With young star striker Ricardo Pepi on the bench, it was Jesus Ferreira, his old FC Dallas teammate, who got the start. But the Colombia-born attacker could not deliver, missing one good chance and one golden chance in the opening 20 minutes.
The U.S. held 62.4% of the possession on the night and had 17 shots to El Salvador's six, but the one that did the trick came off a rebound where the visiting defense could not react in time. Take a look:
The U.S. recorded an xG of 2.98 but could not take the chances to put it away, while still winning somewhat comfortably with El Salvador offering next to nothing going forward. Hugo Perez's side had an xG of just 0.20 on six total shots.
It seemed like Weston McKennie took a knock at the end of the match but Gregg Berhalter talked to the medical team and while everyone will be assessed before Sunday's match against Canada on Paramount+. It doesn't seem like his knock is a worry.
Here are some takeaways from the match:
1. Robinson coming into his own
Outside of McKennie, Robinson likely has the best club form of anyone on the national team and it is beginning to translate to success for club and country.
"We call our full backs a superpower of our team. And we do that because they produce, they give us this and goals if you look at World Cup qualifying so far," said Berhalter. "Our full backs have contributed heavily, Sergino [Dest] has goals and assists, Robinson has goals and assists, and Yedlin has assists. Our full backs are great for us and they're a big part of how we play."
Robinson's confidence showed in his backflip celebration and his antics after as well. He hasn't lost a match since December for club or county. (It's a celebration that Berhalter won't be banning as well)
It was quite a performance that saw Robinson stuff the stat sheet with 86 touches, three chances created, three shots on goal and nine recoveries, which was good for second on the team. He has come into his own in the full back position and it has become one that is set heading into the World Cup in Qatar when it was one of the largest question marks on the roster before the qualifying cycle.
2. Don't forget about always reliable Adams
When you don't hear a defensive midfielder's name called much during a match, it usually means they were at their best. That was the case with Tyler Adams on the night. Completing almost 90 percent of his passes, breaking up critical El Salvador attacks and getting a team-high 10 ball recoveries, Adams did it all. In the second half, he was doing the defensive work of two midfielders and that allowed Berhalter to push his other midfielders higher which led to the winning goal.
The vision to always be where he needs to be is a great intangible that makes Adams a wonderful asset to this team. He has become the most important member of the national team. He's the engine and they'll go as far as he goes.
3. First-half drought will come back to bite them
The United States have scored two first-half goals in World Cup qualifying, which won't cut if they intend to make any noise in Qatar. On Thursday, some of it came down to the lineup changes. Antonee Robinson, for instance, didn't seem to know where Jesus Ferreira wanted the ball which led to a few lofted crosses that should've been whipped or played on the ground. As Berhalter rotates his players -- he has no choice but to do so with three games in six days -- an identity and familiarity within his core must be established.
Some of those issues will be alleviated by the eventual return of Gio Reyna in the March qualifying window, but Berhalter hasn't been able to field a settled first team and it shows. They have been great at making second-half adjustments and growing into the game -- with 11 goals in the second half across the nine matches -- but against better opposition, their luck may run out and we may start seeing slow starts lead into points lost.
Having a good Christian Pulisic is also important as Berhalter used his first sub to remove him from the game. "So overall, happy with Christian's effort in the game," Berhalter said. "I think the effectiveness could've been more, and looking at that moment in the game, looking at where we thought the game was headed we wanted to get him off and get fresh legs in."
For someone who is at their best on the ball, only 42 touches for Pulisic on the ball was not enough. He created three chances but they were minor over the course of the game and he also was unable to get a shot on target.