For a tiny country with humble resources, El Salvador has managed to leave an indelible mark on soccer in North America.
Its two World Cup appearances (in 1970 and '82) are more than any other country except regional powers Mexico and the United States and equal to prosperous Costa Rica. A quartet of players (Raul Diaz Arce, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Jorge Rodriguez and Ronald Cerritos) helped launch Major League Soccer, not only contributing immensely on the field, but also attracting thousands of immigrant fans to the fledgling U.S. pro league, particularly in Washington and Los Angeles.
However, the young Salvadoran national team that will visit RFK Stadium on Sunday to play the United States has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of its distinguished predecessors.
"I believe we can start a new era," Juan Ramon Paredes, who was named coach in June, said before a late-day training session at the RFK auxiliary field yesterday. "It's going to be a lot of hard work. We hope the people [of El Salvador] will be patient."
El Salvador has not played an official match since a rough experience at the CONCACAF Gold Cup last January in Los Angeles. Its world ranking is 95th, nestled between Syria and Albania, and its regional status has slipped to 11th, behind Cuba, a baseball-obsessed country that cares little about soccer. A recent dispute between the country's national soccer federation and one of its emerging stars, D.C. United forward Eliseo Quintanilla, has caused turmoil.
"Quintanilla is a very good player, but he needs time to grow up," one federation official said.
The average age of the players on the preliminary roster for this weekend's match is 20.8, and all 18 players make their living in the modest Salvadoran league. Their chances of winning Sunday are considered slim, even against an experimental U.S. squad with only four World Cup holdovers.
Nonetheless, a large percentage of the crowd, coming from the Washington area's large Salvadoran community, is expected to support the visiting squad. A couple dozen followers showed up at the training session yesterday, some with blue and white Salvadoran flags.
"We have a great future with a new generation of players," said Paredes, 52, who lived in California and New Jersey for a short time years ago. Before taking the national team job he guided Alianza to a Salvadoran league championship.
"The next four years, we are thinking we have to do a better job."
The immediate goal, however, is to prepare for the Central American and Caribbean Games, which will take place in San Salvador starting next week and features under-21 national teams. The long-range aim is to return to respectability by the time qualifying for the 2006 World Cup begins in about 18 months.
El Salvador fared poorly in its two World Cup appearances, going 0-6 and getting outscored 22-1. But for a poor country the size of New Jersey with a population of 6 million, just getting to the World Cup is cause for national celebration.
The Salvadorans made it to the final round of regional qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, but finished fifth out of six teams while Mexico, the United States and Jamaica advanced to France. Four years later, they suffered a pair of humbling losses to historic rival Honduras and ultimately failed to make it past the semifinal round.
The Gold Cup early this year served as an opportunity to regroup, but a 1-0 loss to Mexico and a 4-0 rout by the Americans nullified a 1-0 victory over Guatemala. The program has been largely dormant ever since, with the energetic Paredes in charge of identifying players and organizing a long-term strategy.
Quintanilla, 19, is one of El Salvador's best young talents, but an apparent miscommunication seems to have derailed his promising national team career. He was scheduled to play for El Salvador's under-20 squad at the world championship qualifying tournament in Charleston, S.C., this week, but the federation banned him from representing the country for several years for failing to report to training camp. Quintanilla says he was never told when and where to show up.
The squad that will play at RFK includes several players from the popular club teams FAS (the reigning league champion), Aguila, Alianza and Firpo.
One of the FAS players, Carlos Menjivar Jr., a 21-year-old defensive midfielder, grew up in northern California, played one season at San Diego State and had tryouts with MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy and Colorado Rapids.
His father, Carlos Sr., has lived in the United States for some 30 years and until recently, served as one of four regional directors for the U.S. Soccer Federation's national player development program.
"There is a great potential in El Salvador," Paredes said. "We have a long way to run, but the future is the future. Pretty soon the people will find out about them."