United States 2, El Salvador 0

-- This time, the U.S. national soccer team didn't need any last-minute miracles.

Brian McBride scored midway through the first half and 20-year-old Eddie Johnson connected four minutes into his international debut Saturday night as the Americans subdued desperate El Salvador, 2-0, before about 20,000 at Cuscatlan Stadium.

For the United States (2-0-2), another victory Wednesday against Panama (1-1-2) at RFK Stadium would secure a berth in the final round of 2006 World Cup qualifying next year. The Salvadorans (1-3) must win their final two matches, both on the road, to advance.

The Americans were far from perfect, but they did get a vital first-half goal, something that had eluded them in their previous two road qualifiers. In both of those games, they had to come up with a goal just before the final whistle to pull out a tie.

"We knew we wanted to get the first goal and we wanted to get it early," said McBride, an England-based forward whose 17-yard drive in the 29th minute was the 26th goal of his international career, second-most in U.S. history. "We had it and we didn't get it [because of an offside call in the fifth minute], and it just became more important."

Johnson, who plays for Dallas in MLS, put the match out of reach in the 75th minute with a simple finish of Landon Donovan's pass deep in the penalty area.

It was only the fourth U.S. win in the last 16 qualifiers in Central America (4-5-7) and extended its overall record against El Salvador to 12-1-4, including 9-0-2 since 1993.

"You don't win that many games on the road in World Cup qualifying, so we can't complain," Coach Bruce Arena said. "We've gotten through this round without losing a game on the road" and will now finish the six-game schedule with a pair of home matches.

Perhaps the biggest question for the U.S. team was how it would adapt without its longtime captain, Claudio Reyna, who is sidelined with a thigh injury. Reyna's organizational skills and calmness have played a subtle but important role for the Americans, especially in stressful environments like Saturday night's.

In his absence, Donovan wore the captain's armband -- the first time the influential 22-year-old had been honored by Arena. Donovan played an instrumental role, but his central partner, Clint Mathis, struggled with his passing.

Despite this stadium's notorious reputation, the Americans didn't encounter any problems before the match. In fact, they took the field for warmups to the music of John Philip Sousa, provided by a military band along one sideline. There was also a pep band behind a goal ("Eye of the Tiger" seemed to be a favorite) as well as cheerleaders and baton-twirling dancers.

As expected, the stadium wasn't full, with wide blocks of red-and-yellow concrete terraces as well as clusters of blue permanent seats left empty. Still, hundreds of fans gathered atop a hill overlooking the facility to peek in on the action. Thousands of diehard supporters dressed in the country's colors (blue and white) packed the rowdy section affectionately known as "Vietnam." In a calmer area, several thousand school-aged fans attempted to lift the crowd's morale by chanting, "Si, se puede!" -- loosely translated as, "Yes, it can happen."

The Americans knew an early goal would probably subdue the spirited Salvadorans, and they thought they'd gotten it in the fifth minute. But McBride's easy finish was ruled offside after Josh Wolff had broken in alone and crossed through the box. Mathis should've connected eight minutes later, but he scuffed a clear 10-yard shot after being set up nicely by DaMarcus Beasley.

But the U.S. persistence paid off in the 29th minute when a throw-in was controlled by Zavagnin, who touched the ball to McBride. Stuck in traffic, he pushed the ball to his right and found a sliver of space along the top of the box, snapping the shot into the upper right corner for his seventh goal in six appearances against El Salvador.

The second half brought a Donovan near-miss and an intensified Salvadoran attack, which included an occasional flurry in the U.S. penalty area. Johnson, 20, entered for McBride in the 71st minute and made an immediate impact. From the right side, Beasley pushed a pass to the charging Donovan, who cut the ball across the box to Johnson for an easy touch a few yards from the net.

"It's always hard to play these away games," Johnson said. "It's good to get a win."

U.S. Notes: Defender Cory Gibbs's first-half yellow card was his second of the round, meaning he'll sit out Wednesday's match. . . .

Defender Carlos Bocanegra (hamstring), midfielder-defender Tony Sanneh (hamstring) and forward Conor Casey (ankle) were scratched from the active roster but all are expected to be available Wednesday. . . .

In other CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, Canada tied Honduras, 1-1; Jamaica tied Panama, 1-1, and Costa Rica routed Guatemala, 5-0.