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Day 2 in El Salvador

March 28th, 2009 · 6 Comments · Football, soccer, Sports Journalism, World Cup

Great atmosphere. Tremendous energy in the stadium, a packed-out old venue that looks as if it might fall over in the next earthquake. Or hard wind.

And a crazy game.

U.S. 2, El Salvador 2.

The Salvadorans took a 2-0 lead while dominating the first 70-some minutes, but the home team tried to sit on its advantage and got passive and ended up letting the U.S. score two goals in the air in the final 18 minutes, throwing away a critical two points in the CONCACAF standings.

As is so often the case in World Cup qualifiers played outside the U.S., the scene at the stadium will linger at least as long as the memories of the match.

Picture, if you will, 30,500 fans all wearing blue. And those are just the folks inside the stadium. Figure on another 5,000 roaming around outside the stadium, and all of them chanting “SAL! VA! DOR!”

Envision a couple of hundred riot police, all in black, carrying shields and wearing helmets … needed to keep fans from hurling something more injurious than insults and obscene gestures at the American team as it got off its bus and entered the stadium.

Backup a second. Because San Salvador is a commuter’s nightmare, I decided to go with the U.S. team convoy to the game, even though it meant a cab ride from my hotel to theirs. It was a five-vehicle convoy. The big bus with the players and coaches up front, a police car, a mini-bus with U.S. Soccer Federation executives and pals coming next, another police car and, bringing up the rear, the “press” mini-bus containing both of the American reporters who made the trip — Andrea Canales of and … me.

I don’t know about Andrea, but I sort of felt like a bogus part of the entourage hurtling over the streets of the city, with motorcycle cops up ahead clearing the way. “I’m with the band” … but really, I wasn’t.

Anyway, Salvadoran fans seemed  to recognize that the guys they were trying to intimidate were in the big bus. I’m nor sure we got even one obscene gesture, back in the press bus. We didn’t rate.

We watched the U.S. team go in … and I took some pictures of the scene, which maybe I will post someday (but not now because it’s ridiculously late), then found our way into the stadium, which already was nearly full — and it was an hour-and-a-half till kickoff.

Not that most of you will or should care, but the conditions were seriously primitive for working journalists. No press box. Which means no power, no internet connections — and no chance to file a quick and dirty game story from the stadium.

At first, Andrea and I sat in the only two seats the U.S. federation’s Little Helper could locate. And we were OK with that; we were high enough above the field to see the match. But then the little dude came back with a couple of tickets in a pricier spot near midfield, and we ended up in what was the tiny enclave of U.S. fans. Good, because we could talk to people. Bad because Salvadoran fans weren’t amused by the three guys waving American flags and were chucking debris at them — and hitting us.

I went down to talk to one guy, the first to start waving a flag and catch 30,000 people’s worth of abuse. Turns out, he is an Army captain named Oasis Garcia from Miami who works at the American embassy (like most of the Yanks at the match). “I love everything American,” Garcia said, as his girlfriend beside him looked a bit mortified. “I’m a big fan of the soccer team — of all things American!”

He later added that “El Salvador is a good friend of America, and we’re just here to enjoy the match. Ninety-nine percent of the people here are here to have fun, too; there’s always 1 percent rotten apples out there.”

Luckily, none of them had aim good enough to land direct hits on anyone in the few rows we were sitting in.

OK, game begins. U.S. anthem is booed, as per usual in Latin America. Fans belt out the loud and random Salvadoran national anthem, which I guarantee you I’d never before heard and has no chance of cracking my Top 5 Anthems (French, Russian, Canadian, German, English, not necessarily in that order).

And the game begins. The Yanks were awful almost from the first moment. Several guys were having bad games and never seemed to recover. Heath Pearce continues to be a disaster at left back. (Hurry back, Steve Cherundolo!) DaMarcus Beasley, on the left flank, was as useless as I’ve ever seen him. Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan seemed overmatched and out of sorts in the midfield, unable to keep up with the little Salvadoran skill guys. Danny Califf was a bit shaky in central defense, and second-choice ‘keeper Brad Guzan was seriously shaky in goal. (Tim Howard sat out the game because he had two yellow cards. He is back for the Wednesday match with Trinidad.)

So, Salvador goes up 2-0 in the 72nd minute … then goes into a shell. Bad idea. Really bad idea. The U.S. now roams freely over three-quarters of the pitch, and starts getting its big guys into the box, and that means trouble for the itty-bitty home team.

(This is one of the taller U.S. teams of late, and is very good in the air. We got small, there for a bit, but now we’re back to a half-dozen guys around 6-foot, which is big, in soccer.)

Frankie Hejduk, a guy I love to death, set up the first goal by floating a cross to Jozy Altidore, who headed it home in the 77th minute. And suddenly the partying Salvadoran fans got quiet. And scared. For good reason.

In the 87th minute, Altidore’s aggression forced a corner kick, and Landon Donovan lofted a ball into a mob in front of the goal. The ball hit someone’s head, then popped out to the far post where Hejduk happened to be standing, and Frankie put it away for his seventh goal in 83 national team appearances. He was fired up.

The Yanks had a chance to win late but didn’t quite pull it off, and neither team was quite happy or quite distraught. Salvador realized its late fade almost meant defeat, and the Yanks were pleased to climb out of a 2-0 hole.

For the working scribes, a tie often is boring to write, but it also means the fans — among whom you have to move to get anywhere — are neither rowdy and jubilant nor rowdy and ticked off. Afterward, I talked to Donovan, Frankie, Carlos Bocanegra, Altidore and Guzan.

Then it was back out into the mob scene, and to our two-person mini-bus. We chased the rest of the American caravan back to the team hotel, and I got working on a game story, filing it from Andrea’s room at the hotel because I didn’t want to lose another 15 minutes coming back to this hotel. The link to it is here.

Earlier today, I did a blog item on Frankie, who turned out to be the hero. But who knew? He talked a lot about how he uses surfing to stay fit, at age 35. That ran as a New York Times blog item and can be seen here.

Earlier in the day, I did a piece for NYT that was meant to hold space for the game story … if I could file it in time. It was about how difficult it is for the Americans to win any qualifying road game from Mexico to Panama.

The link to that one is here.

If you’re getting the idea that about all I did today was write and go to a match … you’re pretty much correct. But I did manage to use the exercise room here at the hotel, and to have an omelet for lunch, and to get some sleep … which I won’t do tonight, since I have to be up in about three hours to get ready for my early morning plane back to LAX.

So, yeah, that part of it is consistent with the Latest Hare-Brained Scheme aspect of this.

But, but … if I don’t oversleep, and catch my plane, and get back alive, this HB Scheme has a shot of being a fairly productive one. And interesting one. I saw a weird little country, and watched what has to be the biggest sports event they will have here this year, appreciated some rabid fans and some interesting soccer, and wrote a bunch of words.

Not bad. Now, to bed and see if I can make that plane.

Oh, one more random thing. Cabs here don’t have meters. They just charge you … apparently whatever they feel like charging you. After the ride from the team hotel to my hotel (the ESPN hotel, actually), the cabbie says it’ll be siete dollars. All I’ve got are a few ones. So I give him a 20. Turns out, he can’t make change. He asks me if I have anything smaller (in Spanish, but I got the gist). I pulled out my five ones and counted them (uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco … and now my Spanish is about exhausted) and the guys says, OK, I’ll take that. Rather than make change.

Ah, Latin America. Where everything is negotiable. Especially if the other guy can’t make change.


6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Luis // Mar 29, 2009 at 4:33 AM

    Yeah, no need in sleeping if all you’re going to have to do is get up in three hours.

    I kept looking for you and Andrea during the game. They flashed to the pocket of American fans during the game a few times but I didn’t see you guys, but didn’t know you were near them.

    After the second El Salvador goal, I thought the game was over but they stopped playing aggressively. That’s a gift point the US brought back.

  • 2 Nell // Mar 29, 2009 at 11:14 AM

    This is highly entertaining stuff. I appreciate your stories and the links to the articles/blogs you’ve written. I’m enjoying your unique perspective.

  • 3 Chuck Hickey // Mar 29, 2009 at 1:18 PM

    Sounds like all that was missing was a Trash 80 and some cupplers.

  • 4 Oasis // Mar 30, 2009 at 4:57 PM

    Paul, great meeting you at the game. Although I did tell you that the girl next to me was just a friend! And she was, I hope my ‘real’ girlfriend doesn’t read the posting;-) It seems like you have a fun job, keep it coming.


  • 5 Obiangelis // May 23, 2009 at 6:16 PM

    What a shame that your “real” girlfriend did read the posting.

  • 6 Bob Bradley and the Egypt Experiment // Oct 17, 2013 at 1:26 AM

    […] Bob Bradley, when he was coach of the U.S. national team. I particularly remember him from the trip to El Salvador in 2009, where I covered the World Cup qualifier for the New York […]

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