What we learned in USA vs. El Salvador: McKennie a force, attack sputters

It wasn’t always easy, and yet on the whole, it somewhat was.

The United States topped El Salvador 1-0 in a hard-fought match, but it was one that never felt truly uncomfortable for the home side in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday night. There wasn’t necessarily a feeling of if it would find the back of the net, but rather of when.

A frustrating first half gave way to a more precise second 45 minutes, and after Antonee Robinson provided the breakthrough just after halftime, the U.S. was on its way to an advantageous position in the CONCACAF World Cup qualification standings.

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Here are four things we learned from the United States’ victory over El Salvador in January, which strengthened the Stars & Stripes’ hold on second place in the Octagonal.

1. Weston McKennie is a possessional treasure

It’s hard to imagine that this is the same player who ran like a chicken with his head cut off with Schalke. McKennie has transformed into a calming presence on the ball but also someone with a cutting edge. His partnership with Tyler Adams has blossomed into a first-choice lock, and that’s a beautiful thing for the United States.

Even in the frustrating first half, McKennie was the best player for the United States in building possession, creating opportunities and bringing teammates into the match. Adams and Yunus Musah both played well, but McKennie was the real star.

2. Ricardo Pepi is the guy up front

Gregg Berhalter went with Jesus Ferreira up front in place of Pepi. He explained he wanted better hold-up play for this match. Ferreira was involved, which is meaningful, but he wasn’t the man for the mission.

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While Pepi hasn’t scored for club or country since October, he is the better option, and that was clear Thursday night. There’s more to being a striker than finishing chances, but there are none more important. Ferreira’s first-half miss garnered a 0.7 xG mark, which is gargantuan .  To give a comparison, penalties are tabbed at 0.8. Quite frankly, he has to score that.

Ferreira, on the whole, was fine, and he provided some moments of positivity, but he was mostly invisible after halftime other than providing a flick-on in the U.S. goal. Pepi is the much more polished option at the moment.

3. Gregg Berhalter needs more answers for breaking down bunkered opponents

While the United States eventually found the all-important breakthrough and came out victorious, its scoreless first halves are troubling. Some of that can be explained by the tight margins of CONCACAF play, but the U.S. has consistently been too calm and happy to slowly wear down opponents rather than go at weaker opposition from the opening whistle. While that can be effective, it’s also dangerous.

If Berhalter wishes to develop the United States into a feared opponent heading into the World Cup, there needs to be more venom in the first half rather than a mentality of seeing out the 90 minutes. Teams continuously pack it in against the U.S. and it works, at least early.

Most notably, Berhalter will have a big job getting Christian Pulisic back to his best. The American star was substituted off after just 64 minutes. 

4. Timothy Weah is healthy again

The Lille man was down for quite some time with a hamstring injury, but he’s back to his usual self and he put forth a spectacular performance in Columbus. He was electric down the right, using his well-known pace, but moreso he was incredibly skillful and used his strength and shiftiness to leave defenders scratching their heads.

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With Christian Pulisic in a rut of poor form, having Weah to count on plus a plucky Brenden Aaronson gives the United States a wealth of talent in the attack, which is critical in CONCACAF matches where opponents consistently force the Stars & Stripes to beat them on the ball.

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