Walker Zimmerman header photo courtesy US Soccer.
Tonight at 6:30 p.m. CST (7:30 local), the US Men’s National Team, after a long layoff, will play a game on home soil. A November window that saw the team play close to a first-choice lineup is likely more relevant to the future of the program. I’ve got a soft spot for guys developed (developing?) and playing domestically nonetheless.
The game will air on ESPNews, TUDN, and Unimás. Here’s a look at the contest.
The vast majority of their players are domestically-based. That means just a little bit of knowledge of the domestic league is helpful. there are essentially three powers in recent years: Águila, Alianza FC, and Santa Tecla. They’ve combined to win each season since 2015, aside from the 2016 Clausura, which C.D. Dragon won. Players from those teams are largely the best available domestically (with that group picking off lesser teams’ talent Bayern-style between most seasons).
It’s hard to know what to expect lineup-wise from a team that has played once in a year (a 1-0 friendly loss to Iceland back in January with a heavily-rotated lineup). However, they’ve had a pretty locked-in group of starters, so we’ll operate on the assumption that manager Carlos de los Cobos is not going to reinvent the wheel.
Henry Hernández – A 35-year old (one year and one day older than ya boy) who has played almost exclusively in the domestic league until a recent move to Guatemala. He has 38 caps for El Salvador, including two stints as the top keeper, with the most recent starting in 2018. He started all three group-stage games at the 2019 Gold Cup, when he captained his team. Had he only given up three goals to Honduras on the third matchday, the Cuzcatlecos would have advanced to the knockouts. They lost 4-0.
Benji Villalobos – A 32-year old who was the regular starter for about a year until Hernández re-emerged in 2018
The likely centerback starters are the guys who have largely been locks in the not-so-distant past: 27-year old Ivan Mancía and 23-year old Robert Domínguez. Domínguez has a more… cosmopolitan résumé than the average Salvadoran, recently moving from Santa Tecla to Bolivia’s Club Bolívar – and with a half-season loan to Vancouver Whitecaps in 2018 under his belt (he did not see game action). The future is pretty bright for a guy with that experience who’s still pretty young for the position. He can also play right back, so there’s flexibility here.
The fullbacks have been less settled, but many of the guys seeing regular playing time (Andrés Flores Jaco, Ibsen Castro, and Jorge Luís Morán) were not called into the squad. The left side has two guys with solid credentials competing for the spot: Alexander Larin has been on the books with Liga MX side Tigres (though he never saw the field), and has time in the Ascenso MX (Mexican second division) under his belt. Jonathan Jiménez has been the regular starter at LB but can also play as a centerback even though he stands just 5-7. I would guess we’ll see Jiménez on the right and Larin on the left.
Bryan Tamacas and Alexander Mendoza should provide depth at fullback and centerback, respectively. They both play at “big three” clubs domestically, and are regularly called up but rarely play for the national team.
Houston Dynamo midfielder Darwin Cerén is probably the player at the highest-profile league not just among these call-ups, but inn the Salvadoran player pool. He’s 30, so not exactly a spring chicken, but a solid defensive midfielder who’s not hyper-great in the offensive aspects of the game. He’s only a situational player, so he may not see the lineup. If he does, Alianza’s Marvin Monterroza is likely the partner. He’s a 27-year old central mid. After not making the national team squad since 2014(!) he’s played almost every available match since 2019 began.
If Cerén isn’t in the lineup, it’s likely because of Narciso Orellana. A 25-year old pure defensive midfielder, Orellana has become an every-game player for El Salvador since the end of 2018. El Salvador is fairly multiple schematically, so formations with three central midfielders (likely in a pure 4-5-1/4-1-4-1) are certainly within the realm of possibility.
Denis Pineda actually has top-flight European experience(!), with a couple games in Portugal’s top league with Santa Clara – though most of his time in Portugal was spent on loan to second-division clubs. He moved to Ecuador’s first division recently, but that’s still quite a bit higher-profile than the average player on this squad. He can play either wide midfield position. Juan Carlos Portillo is a left-footed left-side midfielder, who plays his club ball for (drumroll please…) Alianza FC. He slides inside at times, as well, and can even go up top.
Andrés Flores is a winger-type or attacking midfielder who played for Portland Timbers this season, though even a banged-up Timbers side could barely find 200 minutes for him. That’s… still comparable to playing a lot in the domestic league? Maybe? If there’s a 4-2-3-1 type of formation, I could see him being the third member of that attacking line. However, Pablo Punyed, a Miami native who plays in Iceland, may be the choice – especially because the game’s in his family’s backyard. They’re both 30, so it’s not like there’s a “youth v experience” decision to make here.
Rodrigo Rivero, 28-year old CM for Santa Tecla, has one cap, which came back in 2018. He’s the only pure depth player here. It’s easy to see any of the others making the pitch or even the starting lineup. The midfield is the obvious position group of strength for this El Salvador team.
With only three forwards called in, I would imagine we’re looking at a formation with a single striker (though obviously there’s some flexibility to the whole affair). This is a position of relative weakness, largely because 32-year old Rodolfo Zelaya was not called in. He has Liga MX and MLS (four games with LAFC) experience, but is back in the domestic league.
All three call-ups at the position are 28. David Díaz has played his whole career domestically, currently with Santa Tecla. He subbed into Concacaf Nations League games in the last round of League B about a year ago, and I would bet he’s first choice.
The other two have American connections:
Joaquin Rivas plays in USL Championship for FC Tulsa. He has a couple call-ups and his first international goal in 2018. Obviously, there’s a nice sentimental reason to pull for a guy, given the connections between FC Tulsa and Nashville SC historically.
Dustin Corea is a Portland native and former US Youth International at the U-17 level. He’s had an extremely journeyman-style career: he began as a professional in El Salvador (the country from which his dad emigrated), and has seen stops in Denmark, Sweden, Canada, the United States, and Guatemala. He’s currently unattached.
What I want to see from the US
A win. This probably could have gone without saying. El Salvador is not traditionally very strong, and this looks like a squad that has some potential, but is only marginally better than the broader trend (if that).
Walker Zimmerman with the start. This one is purely selfish for Nashville reasons. Seeing him on the pitch one last time this season is nice in a vacuum, and a good advertisement for the club. He’s one of the more-experienced players on the roster, so a possible captain’s armband would be even better.
Youth gets served. This is a young roster generally, and while I do appreciate that Paul Arriola, Bill Hamid (classic “born at the wrong time” sort of national team career), Sebastian Lletget, et al can provide, in a non-FIFA date friendly match against what should be an outclassed Central American team… I’d rather let Scuffed pick the starting lineup, if you catch my drift. Obviously Zimmerman would fall into this category if not for his specific club situation.
Obviously we’re doin’ less-comprehensive previewin’ than for a Nashville SC game. Sit back and enjoy.