SAN SALVADOR — For more than three years, Gregg Berhalter had rebuilt the U.S. men’s national soccer team through the introduction of young players thriving overseas and the implementation of an ambitious style.

Benchmarks were met in friendlies and regional tournaments. Roster depth grew and trophies were lifted. All efforts, though, were geared toward the start of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers Thursday and exorcising the ghosts of a disastrous campaign four years ago.

That long-awaited moment came in a madhouse called Estadio Cuscatlan for a 0-0 draw with El Salvador that disappointed more than it impressed.

“In the end, we fell short,” Berhalter said, “and so looking at everything, we’ll take it and we’ll move on.”

With expectations soaring, the Americans showed fine qualities but were inefficient in the penalty area and were put under pressure by a home side that channeled the energy of a raucous crowd and performed with courage and confidence.

The fast-and-furious regional race for three automatic berths in Qatar will continue for the United States on Sunday against Canada (0-0-1) in Nashville and continue Wednesday in Honduras (0-0-1).

The schedule will include 14 matches across seven months in the eight-nation competition.

El Salvador, coached by former U.S. star Hugo Perez, is making its first appearance in the final round of qualifiers since the 2010 cycle. La Selecta has not qualified since 1982.

The Americans extended their unbeaten streak to 10 and unbeaten run in the series with El Salvador to 18.

“The standard is high, the bar is high,” said midfielder Tyler Adams, who, at age 22, captained the squad. “We want to win as many away games as possible. We know tangibly it’s not going to be the easiest. Now after having that first experience, we know we have to dig in a little deeper in the late stages of the game. We need to get after it. We need to finish.”

On the eve of the match, Berhalter was firm in his belief the United States employed more than enough quality to qualify. His roster featured players from some of the biggest clubs and leagues in the sport. Even without their best player, Christian Pulisic, the Americans were confident of collecting points on the road.

The question, Berhalter conceded, was whether this novice group had the right mentality to deal with a qualifying campaign that he called a “different animal” than the players are accustomed to in MLS and Europe.

“It was a really good learning experience for the collective group, just to see what these games are about,” Berhalter said. “You can talk about them, but until you are actually in them, it’s hard to understand. We got that under our belt.”

World Cup qualifiers in the Concacaf region (North and Central America and the Caribbean) are often bizarre theater, full of unpredictable turns, rough fields and tough fans. These are not the immaculate grounds and orderly procedures of European leagues; the qualifiers are raw and intense.

Blue-clad fans began arriving at the stadium eight hours before kickoff. Afternoon showers faded. The streets around the stadium hummed with energy and smelled of grilled meats.

Attendance in a venue that holds more than 40,000 was supposed to be limited to 29,000 (with vaccination cards and masks required), but there were few empty seats.

Easily identified by their red jerseys and scarves, about 60 brave U.S. supporters made the journey, escorted by police and tucked into a section far behind one goal.

Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” boomed. The U.S. team was entering a lion’s den, greeted by a mix of derision and respect. FC Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest was applauded.

A pregame fireworks display turned into an in-game show. The Salvadoran anthem seemed as if it was sung by every fan in full voice.

“We didn’t silence the fireworks," Berhalter said, "but we silenced the crowd a little bit by getting in the penalty box, getting a lot of little half-chances.”

Only five of the 23 U.S. players in uniform Thursday had appeared in a World Cup qualifier, and just two started. A wide gulf in world rankings — No. 10 United States vs. No. 64 El Salvador — meant nothing.

Amid the bedlam, the Roldan family relished the visit. One son, Cristian, came in in the second half for the United States, and another, Alex, started for El Salvador. Both play for the Seattle Sounders. Their mother, Ana, wore Alex’s Salvadoran jersey, while Cesar wore Cristian’s U.S. top.

Berhalter was forced to make lineup adjustments midweek after ruling out Pulisic, who is rebuilding fitness after recovering from the coronavirus, and Zack Steffen, the starting goalkeeper hampered by back spasms.

A pair of 20-year-olds, Brenden Aaronson and Konrad de la Fuente, flanked striker Josh Sargent, 21. The midfield featured Gio Reyna, 18, Weston McKennie, 23, and Adams.

Matt Turner — 27 but a newcomer to international soccer — replaced Steffen. Tim Ream, 33, was a surprise starter at center back, joining Miles Robinson, 24. Dest and veteran DeAndre Yedlin lined up at fullback.

The Salvadorans, featuring mostly players from the domestic and U.S. leagues, played with spirit and belief. Both sides had good chances in the first half. Alex Roldan whipped an angled shot narrowly off target.

The second half brought more mild threats by each team. U.S. threats were disrupted several times by defenders blocking shots and crosses.

“It turned into too hectic of a game and we didn’t manage that well enough,” Berhalter said. “I wasn’t happy with the control of the game.”

Berhalter was also disappointed in his team’s chemistry, saying, “We lacked that connection that is really going to get us over the top. It was too much individual play.”

In the 76th minute, McKennie crossed to Kellyn Acosta for a header that was well saved by Mario Gonzalez at the near post. Both coaches turned to their reserves for a boost. After shanking a cross into the crowd, McKennie howled in disgust.

The Americans had made a habit this summer of scoring late goals, most notably in the Nations League and Gold Cup finals against Mexico. On this day, though, one point would have to suffice.

“This is the start of the story for this team,” Ream said. “What has happened in the past is the past and tonight is the start of our story and we create our own narrative. Tonight was chapter one.”

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