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U.S. is a step closer to South Africa

With a 2-1 win over El Salvador, the Americans pull to within two victories of qualifying for the World Cup in 2010.

September 06, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

SANDY, UTAH — Two more victories should do it.

Two more wins -- over Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras or Costa Rica -- and the U.S. will qualify for soccer's World Cup for the sixth consecutive time.

The Americans, inspired by Landon Donovan, powered by goals from Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, and saved by goalkeeper Tim Howard, defeated El Salvador, 2-1, on Saturday night to move one step closer to South Africa 2010.

It was a team effort, not always pretty, not always trouble-free, but in the end effective.

It should have been easy. El Salvador made it difficult. As a result, the not-quite-sellout crowd of 19,066 at Rio Tinto Stadium was kept on edge until the final whistle.

"The one thing to be said about El Salvador all across the field is that they compete, they're a bunch fighters," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said.

Indeed, El Salvador took the lead 31 minutes 5 seconds into the game, the goal coming after Jonathan Bornstein, starting at left back, tried to hook the ball clear from inside his penalty area only to see it reach Eliseo Quintanilla.

The midfielder immediately sent in a deep cross and teammate Cristian Castillo leaped to head the ball over an off-balance Howard and into the net.

For a brief moment, the possibility existed that a huge upset was in the making. It evaporated quickly.

First, Howard made a fine save to deny the Salvadorans a second goal, blocking a shot by Quintanilla that was heading for the upper left corner of Howard's net.

That began the turnaround.

Then the U.S. found its shooting range and scored twice in the closing minutes of the first half to take control -- more or less.

"The best part was the response when we went down," Bradley said. "It's never easy, you feel that pressure for a moment, but there was a real strong response from everybody on the field and that says a lot about what these guys are all about. They understand how difficult these games are and how competitive they are."

It was Donovan who unlocked the Salvadoran defense, first with a free kick and then with a pinpoint cross.

In the 41st minute, the U.S. tied the score when Donovan, about 30 yards out on the right, floated a free kick into the Salvadoran goal area and Dempsey, diving head first, powered the ball into the net just inside the left post.

The go-ahead goal came in the second minute of injury time and Donovan again was the instigator. He fooled midfielder Arturo Alvarez -- his former teammate with the San Jose Earthquakes -- and crossed the ball into the penalty area.

Altidore was unmarked and sent his header flying past goalkeeper Miguel Montes to end the half on a positive note for the home team.

The U.S. went into the game holding a 13-1-5 all-time advantage in the series, including a 4-0-3 mark in World Cup qualifying, and had outscored El Salvador by a cumulative 43 goals to 12. But El Salvador was not about to raise a white flag. It kept attacking the U.S. throughout the second half as the game became a wide-open, end-to-end affair with scoring chances for both teams.

What looked like a legitimate goal from Altidore off a Dempsey through ball was disallowed on a mysterious foul call. A superb volley from midfielder Jose Torres brought a stunning save from Montes.

Then, with less than four minutes remaining, Howard produced an equally memorable save that he afterward dismissed as routine.

With the U.S. battling to hold the lead, William Reyes found himself with his back to the goal and the ball at his feet. He turned and fired a low shot, but Howard, diving to his right, snared the ball.

The last few minutes were tense as the U.S. defense bent but did not break. One goal would have changed everything, as Howard well knew.

"It's tricky because you want to try to stay calm but you're also thinking, 'Heck, man, this is the difference between three points and one point. That's a big difference,' " he said. "So to say you're a little bit on edge is an understatement. You just want the whistle to blow."

When it did, the U.S. was securely in second place in the six-nation qualifying group, behind Honduras only on goal difference and ahead of Costa Rica and Mexico.

Well placed, in other words, for the trip to South Africa in 2010 as it heads out Monday for a Wednesday night game against Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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