ORLANDO -- The United States men's national team progressed to the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals, though it made hard work of defeating El Salvador 1-0.
Ricardo Pepi scored the all-important goal just moments after coming on as a second-half substitute, and with the U.S. proving resolute in defense, that was enough to claim the top spot in Group D and move on to the CNL semifinals in Las Vegas in June.
Overall, the U.S. were worth their win given how they gradually took control of the match, but honor is due El Salvador, who under manager and former U.S. international Hugo Sanchez continued to give the U.S. all it could handle.
1. USMNT wears down tough El Salvador side
This was a match in which the U.S. was expected to dominate given that it had most of its World Cup squad available, and was playing a competitive fixture at home for the first time since the World Cup. And yet as has been the habit against El Salvador, the home side found it difficult to break the Salvadoran defense.
The visitors nearly went ahead just two minutes in, when Jairo Henriquez's shot was touched wide by Matt Turner. El Salvador also looked the better side through the first 20 minutes, with a 53-47 advantage in terms of possession time. The U.S. eventually took control, but the home side struggled to find a breakthrough, even when Weston McKennie was presented with a wide-open header in first-half stoppage time.
But then with the game hanging in the balance, interim U.S. manager Anthony Hudson made the kind of change that can tilt a match in a team's favor. Off came Daryl Dike and the disappointing Alejandro Zendejas, and on came Brenden Aaronson and Ricardo Pepi. Pepi made an immediate impact in the 62nd minute, latching on to McKennie's through ball and then delivering a delicate chip over Salvadoran goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez.
Pepi had a few more chances to pad the U.S. lead, but his tally proved enough to secure victory for the home side.
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2. Pepi bails out sputtering U.S. attack
Plenty of eyes were on Giovanni Reyna this window to see how he would rebound from the drama surrounding him (and more so his parents and former manager Gregg Berhalter) over the past three months. Playing in a central role, Reyna was quiet for long stretches but also had his moments, including a shot that rang off the post just seconds into the second half. He was certainly tidy on the ball, oftentimes dropping deep to get his touches, which was likely just fine with El Salvador.
But if one were to pick a player who raised his stock the most during this window, it would have to be Pepi. This is a player who has overcome the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup to bang in the goals for Dutch side Groningen -- 10 in all competitions -- as it attempts to fight off relegation.
His two goals against Grenada were easy to dismiss given the opposition. But his tally on this night, taken with considerable composure, will move him up a few spots on the U.S. depth chart. Even if Folarin Balogun follows through on his hints, and opts to represent the U.S. over England, Pepi will have done his prospects little harm.
Good thing, too, because this was a night when the U.S. attack struggled for long periods, especially in the first half. Too often there was a lack of precision in the final third, a trait that plagued them at the World Cup as well. The service from wide areas wasn't nearly accurate enough to take advantage of the imposing size of Dike, and the attempts to play quick combinations too often ran into the veritable wall that was El Salvador's back line.
Set pieces were a source of frustration as well, even as El Salvador played with fire by committing numerous fouls in and around the box. But this was also a case where the U.S. wore El Salvador down, and they gradually increased the pressure before finally finding the net. It took something special though, and the U.S. got it with McKennie's pass and Pepi's finish.
3. Credit to Hugo Perez's work with El Salvador
It wasn't that long ago that El Salvador was in the doldrums. A match-fixing scandal back in 2013 robbed the country of a generation of players. Prior to the last cycle, the final round of World Cup qualifying hadn't featured El Salvador since 2010. But that has changed under manager Hugo Perez, an El Salvador native but also a former U.S. international.
El Salvador did indeed reach the final round of qualifying during the 2022 cycle, and pushed the U.S. to the limit in the last four encounters, tying the U.S. twice and losing the other two by 1-0 scores. It has done so with a hyper-organized defense and an attack that has been more willing to take risks.
Of course, the challenge now for Perez is to raise his side to the next level. That could prove even harder than getting his side to its current position. But there is a reachable goal on the horizon. With the U.S., Canada and Mexico all getting automatic qualifying spots at the 2026 World Cup, the chance is there for El Salvador to qualify for the 48-team tournament for the first time since 1982. That would be a remarkable achievement for Perez and the country of his birth.
Best and worst performers
Best: Ricardo Pepi, forward, U.S.
Pepi won the window for the player who helped his stock the most, and his deft finish against El Salvador helped subdue a stubborn opponent.
Best: Eriq Zavaleta, defender, El Salvador
The Salvadoran defense was stubborn all night, and Zavaleta was a big part of it, winning his duels and taking care of the ball to the tune of a 90% completion rate.
Best: Miles Robinson, defender, U.S.
Robinson was making his first appearance for the U.S. since tearing an Achilles last May, and looked composed throughout.
Worst: Alejandro Zendejas, forward, U.S.
Overall it was a frustrating night for the newly cap-tied U.S. international. Some uncharacteristic sloppy touches overshadowed his better moments. He was duly subbed off in the 61st minute.
Worst: Roberto Dominguez, defender, El Salvador
Center backs are often judged by their mistakes, and so it proved for Dominguez whose momentary lapse in concentration allowed Pepi to get away and score the game's lone goal, and overshadowed an otherwise solid night.
Worst: Antonee Robinson, defender, U.S.
Robinson got forward well enough but struggled to connect on his crosses and didn't really combine well with Christian Pulisic.
Highlights and notable moments
Mere moments after coming into the game, Ricardo Pepi scored the winning goal. After two goals in the game against Grenada, the Pepi train is rolling once more.
🚂 🚂 🚂 🚂— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) March 28, 2023
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A great way to cap off another strong performance in goal. Big congrats to Matt Turner and his family!
IT'S A GIRL 💕💕💕💕— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) March 28, 2023
Congrats to @headdturnerr and the fam! 💜 pic.twitter.com/S5lUIETmXo
After the match: What the players/managers said
USMNT interim coach Anthony Hudson on Ricardo Pepi: "Really pleased with him, for him. ... We really value him. We love him as a person, as a character. We believe in him. ... In both games he could have had quite a few more goals. He's had a lot of chances."
Pepi, on his three USMNT goals since being snubbed for the World Cup: "It's been a roller coaster."
Hudson, on Gio Reyna's performances: "He clearly has talent, and you see tonight some of the things he does ... He probably needs a few more games under his belt. ... We're very, very pleased with how he's been this week in training."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
- Only Christian Pulisic (18 years, 263 days) and Jozy Altidore (19 years, 146 days) reached six goals with the USMNT at a younger age than Ricardo Pepi (20 years, 77 days).
- Of those six career USMNT goals, this is the first as a substitute for Pepi.
United States: The win clinches a spot into the final round of the competition, with the four group winners convening in Las Vegas for June 15 semifinals and the title game on June 18. Later in the summer, it'll be the Gold Cup. The USMNT is defending champs in both these tourneys.
Before then, the USMNT will also play Mexico on April 19 in a exhibition match in Glendale, Arizona. With that match falling outside of a FIFA window, expect a roster relying on MLS, Liga MX and other non-European leagues for both sides.
El Salvador: No planned matches until the Gold Cup, which kicks off June 26.