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USMNT handles El Salvador to earn three big World Cup qualifying points

United States' Antonee Robinson (5) celebrates his goal with Weston McKennie (8) and Chris Richards (15) during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against El Salvador, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — By halftime of the U.S. men’s national soccer team’s World Cup qualifier Thursday, a cold night felt that much chillier. The Americans were locked in a scoreless match against an opponent that was supposed to be paralyzed by the frosty conditions.

With the qualifying schedule entering the late stage and a trip to Qatar in the balance over the next two months, anything other than victory in the Ohio capital would not sit well with Coach Gregg Berhalter or a fan base famished to return to the sport’s quadrennial spectacle after missing out in 2018.

Early in the second half, the goal — and the relief that accompanied it — came off the left foot of Antonee Robinson. And with a 1-0 triumph over stubborn El Salvador, the Americans moved closer to securing one of three automatic berths from the Concacaf region.

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With five games left, the United States (5-1-3, 18 points) remains second behind Canada (5-0-4, 19), Sunday’s opponent in Hamilton, Ontario. Mexico (5-2-2, 17 points) is third and Panama (4-3-2, 14) fourth.

The U.S. team’s cold-weather tour will end Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn., where the game-time temperature against Honduras is expected to be 7 degrees. Four or six points in the next two matches will leave the Americans in prime position entering the three-game finale in late March.

“We’re one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup,” Robinson said, “so we’re all delighted.”

Berhalter, a former U.S. World Cup defender in his first World Cup cycle as head coach, echoed Robinson’s sentiments. “We are still in very good position. Three points were vital at home,” the coach said.

The key goal again came after intermission, a trend that elicits both concern about first-half production and encouragement about how Berhalter and the team have adjusted in the second half. Eleven of the 13 U.S. goals in qualifying have come after halftime.

“We were all a bit slow, lacked intensity” in the first half, forward Tim Weah said. “El Salvador came out harder than us, and that should never happen. Second half, we realized what we weren’t doing right and applied pressure and benefiting from it. We have to come out stronger.”

The Americans were quite good for much of the first half but lacked a finishing touch. It took seven minutes of the second half to find a breakthrough.

Weston McKennie delivered a long ball to Weah, whose speed and touch wreaked havoc in the penalty area. Mario González made a superb save, but the rebound drifted to Jesús Ferreira. As a striker, the first instinct is to seek out the target. But Ferreira made a smarter decision by heading the ball wide to Robinson for an eight-yard strike and his second goal of qualifying. He celebrated with a cartwheel and then a flip on the frigid turf.

“It was always going to be a tough, tight affair,” said Robinson, a 24-year-old left back for English club Fulham. “They made it difficult. They were aggressive. They sat tight. We kept patient. We kept doing what was working and eventually got the goal — thankfully.”

Berhalter said he was not that disappointed with the first-half performance, which included Ferreira, in his first qualifying start, missing two golden chances.

“We had enough chances in the first half to score goals. That’s what I am happy about,” he said. “We could’ve finished some chances and been up 1-0 or 2-0.”

At halftime, team leaders McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams “were all saying the things we were all thinking,” Robinson said. “We need to be more urgent. We need to be more aggressive, more demanding of each other.”

At the start, the Americans seemed to have all the advantages against El Salvador (1-5-3). It was cold (32 degrees at kickoff), though not unbearable. Snow flurries fell for a few hours, creating a pretty scene as 20,000 fans descended on the downtown venue.

For the first time since a March 2019 friendly, Pulisic, Adams and McKennie were in the starting lineup together — a wait caused by injuries, the pandemic and, in McKennie’s case, banishment for two games for violating team rules.

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But the longer the game remained scoreless, the more emboldened El Salvador became. Seemingly unbothered by the cold, the visitors created a terrific chance in the 28th minute. The U.S. defense was exposed in transition, leaving captain Alex Roldan free on the right side for an 18-yard bid that missed the far corner by a whisker.

Even though the Americans controlled the second half, one mistake threatened to derail their efforts. The defense showed some cracks — a bad giveaway here, a questionable decision there — but did not allow any serious threats against goalkeeper Matt Turner.

The final whistle sent everyone scrambling for warmth — and brought the Americans within striking distance of a World Cup berth.

“I wouldn’t say this was our best game,” Berhalter said. “You could see we’ve been away from each other [since the previous qualifiers, in November]. … Happy. Now it’s time to regroup and come up with a plan to attack Canada.”

Notes: The United States improved to 9-1-2 in qualifiers in Columbus and 19-1-6 all-time against El Salvador. … With 23 players allowed on the game-day roster, goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina, defenders DeAndre Yedlin and Brooks Lennon, and midfielder Sebastian Lletget were not in uniform.

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