Friday, March 27, 2009

ATH: National Team Preview

U.S. National Team Players Association

Scouting Report: El Salvador

By Clemente Lisi -- El Salvador may not be the toughest team in the world, but their fans sure help make the difference whenever “La Selecta” plays at home. The United States can expect very hostile fans when the squad walks onto the field at San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlan on Saturday night.

A harsh reception is nothing new for teams that play on the road during World Cup qualifying, although El Salvadorians bring hostility to whole new levels.

Just last month, FIFA fined the El Salvadorians $25,300 for their inability to control fans during a hard-fought 2-2 tie against Trinidad & Tobago at the Estadio Cuscatlan, a crumbling concrete structure that opened in 1976 and holds 53,000 fans. Throughout much of the game, debris rained onto the field, and despite three announcements over the public address system pleading with the crowd to stop, the shower of cups and other trash continued to be thrown onto the field.

The recent emergence of El Salvador’s national team has been accompanied by a series of unsavory incidents over the past two years. Last June, El Salvador trailed visiting Panama 1-0 at halftime in the second leg of a preliminary World Cup qualifying-round match. Having already lost the first leg 1-0, El Salvador still went through, scoring three times in the last 20 minutes (including one goal on a controversial PK) as Panama had two players ejected.

"From the start to the finish of the game, our players were constantly insulted by the public who, in addition to the racist insults, threw bottles, bags of water and bags of urine, amid the indifference of the police, who should have given protection," the Panamanian Federation wrote in a letter to FIFA.

Panama also complained about that Mexican referee Marco Antonio Rodriguez for failing to stop the game when a bottle was thrown at their goalkeeper. Neither FIFA nor CONCACAF punished Rodriguez. Ironically, he was the same ref who officiated El Salvador's qualifier with Trinidad & Tobago last month that later led to the fine.

As for the type of reception the US will receive, coach Bob Bradley is realistic.

“El Salvador is always a tough place to play,” he said. “We understand that.”

The El Salvador game is the start of a four-day stretch for the Americans. After playing on the road, the US returns home to take on Trinidad & Tobago on April 1st in Nashville.

As for El Salvador, its chances of beating the US – and reaching next year’s World Cup finals – rests largely on the shoulders of their young players. A long shot to reach the World Cup in 2010 (they qualified for the 1970 and 1982 finals), El Salvador is led by 20-year-old forward Rodolfo Zelaya. His goals in the previous round (a hat trick against Haiti and a goal versus Suriname) have gotten El Salvador this far. A player that reminds many of Raul Diaz Arce, Zelaya, who has four goals in just 13 games, is quick with the ball and one of the fastest players on the team.

In midfield, the El Salvadorians feature a dynamic duo of Eliseo Quintanilla and Edwin Miranda. Quintanilla, who scored two goals against Panama in that hotly contested match last year to spearhead the rally, is the squad’s playmaker. When he’s not seeing tohis defensive duties in the midfield, Quintanilla, 26, is dishing off passes to his teammates and moving the ball up field. Tallying an impressive 11 goals in 35 games for the national team, Quintanilla is no stranger to American soccer fans. He played for DC United in 2003 and 2004, scoring seven goals in 32 games.

Playing alongside Quintanilla is Miranda, who also has an American connection. He was born in El Salvador, but grew up in California (and later played soccer at Cal State Northridge). The 28-year-old is fairly new to the national team (he only has three caps), but has been a regular for the Puerto Rico Islanders of the USL-Division 1 over the past three seasons. Primarily used as a defense midfielder, Miranda can connect with the ball off set pieces and isn’t afraid to make forays into the opposing half of the field.

Despite the home crowd, superb attack and burgeoning talent, El Salvador will be at a disadvantage against the US. Mexican-born coach Carlos de los Cobos, who is in his third year at the helm, has done everything he can to make the team competitive again -- although history remains on the US’s side.

El Salvador has never beaten the US in World Cup qualifying with its only favorable result (in six tries) coming in 1989 when they played the Americans to a 0-0 tie in St. Louis. The draw left the Americans needing to beat Trinidad & Tobago (which they did, 1-0) to reach the 1990 World Cup.

Raising Expectation

By J Hutcherson -- Pardon me if I don't jump into the pre-match hype that tends to build any team the United States happens to be playing as some test or potential problem. El Salvador doesn't have the players to make this a game home or away, and that should show over ninety minutes.

Sure, we all remember Guatemala and Cuba away, when the US spent too much time trying to break down a defense that would have bent under their normal attack. We've seen the United States get too clever with the passing, keep their target forward back, and basically make things harder. We've also seen the US defense make all the difference while the attack worked out its issues.

The United States doesn't need Tim Howard for this game. Brad Guzan in the understudy role will do, as will Marcus Hahnemann. With Pablo Mastroeni back and capable in defensive midfield, Michael Bradley should be able to play a more attacking role. Landon Donovan is good enough in these situations to develop himself, but some help would be nice.

A free flowing US trusting the defense on the counter, and this should be a mismatch from the opening whistle. Join me at 8:45pm Saturday night for live follow along coverage for ESPN2's broadcast and we'll see if I'm right.

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