The goal celebration, it turned out, provided the match’s final moment of drama.
Seconds after United States defender Antonee Robinson scored what proved to be the winning goal for the Americans in their 1-0 victory over El Salvador on Thursday night, he wheeled away from the goal, did a handspring and then pulled up grabbing his left hamstring. Playing through 30-degree temperatures — U.S. Soccer had scheduled the game for Columbus, Ohio, in January to try to gain a mental, if not meteorological, advantage over its Central American rivals — had suddenly seemed to backfire.
Robinson, though, was only joking. He quickly turned his (faked) anguished steps into a full-blown strut, to the delight of his teammates and the immense relief of his coaches. And just like that, the United States had moved another step closer to claiming a place in this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The victory, combined with other results on a chilly night of qualifying matches in North and Central America and the Caribbean, kept the United States securely in contention to take control of its qualifying group in an important showdown with Canada on Sunday in Hamilton, Ontario. When the final whistle blew in Columbus, Canada was leading Honduras at halftime.
United States Coach Gregg Berhalter made only one notable change to his lineup on Thursday, inserting Jesús Ferreira, a surprise starter over Ricardo Pepi, his former F.C. Dallas teammate, at striker. Ferreira offered energy, movement and some excellent connections in the first half. But he failed to convert two excellent chances in the first 20 minutes, and the Americans drifted into halftime with the majority of the possession and a near-monopoly on the frustration.
The breakthrough came early in the second half, after Timothy Weah shed his defender and fired a shot at the near post that ricocheted off the goalkeeper and high in the air in the 52nd minute. A header across the goal eluded players on both teams and bounced directly in front of Robinson, who buried a one-time shot with his left foot.
The goal, and the 1-0 deficit, seemed to take the life out of the Salvadorans, who now have been shut out in five of their nine qualifiers. A comeback seemed out of reach even before Robinson’s injury gag: El Salvador has yet to score two goals in any of its matches in the final round. Finding two against the United States in the cold was beyond a long shot.
But the Americans seemed to ease up as well: Christian Pulisic departed just after the hour mark, presumably to bank a bit of rest before the Canada match, and Ferreira and Weah soon followed him to the bench.
With three games scheduled in eight days in the current qualifying window, the United States has a chance to move into a commanding position to claim one of the region’s three automatic berths to the World Cup early in the final three-game window in March. (It was mathematically possible, though extremely unlikely, that the Americans could have claimed a World Cup place by next week if a complicated series of results broke their way.)
Through eight of the 14 qualifiers, the United States was in second place entering Thursday’s games, one point behind Canada, the surprise group leader, one ahead of the archrival Mexico and Panama. Mexico kept pace, for now, by rallying for a 2-1 victory against Jamaica in Kingston.
The United States can take control of the group if they can beat the Canadians — weakened by the absence of the Bayern Munich wing Alphonso Davies — on Sunday. They will then face Honduras on Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn., hoping to make it three wins in a week.
“We’re in a good position,” Pulisic said earlier this week, “and by the end of this window, we could be in a great position.”