The only thing that spared the United States from a massive embarrassment on the international stage tonight was the immeasurable desire of one Frankie Hejduk.
Aside from Hejduk's considerable efforts, the bright spots were few and far between as the US narrowly avoided a shocking upset at the hands of a plucky El Salvador team.
Granted, the men from El Salvador gave it their all, but pluck, grit and moxie shouldn't make that much of a difference when your team isn't even considered to be among the 100 best in the world.
The final scoreline will say 2-2, but that doesn't come close to telling the whole story. In fact, until Jozy Altidore put the US on the board in the 76th minute, a massive upset looked all but certain. El Salvador was comfortably in control with a 2-0 lead and the US was running around like the proverbial headless chicken.
Just to be clear, we aren't talking "upset" in the sense of a 12-seed taking down a five during March Madness. We're talking Princeton taking it to UCLA, App State over Michigan...hell, this would have been as unexpected as Chaminade over Ralph Sampson's Viriginia.
You see, the United States currently sits at No. 17 in the FIFA world rankings. El Salvador? Middle of the pack, at number 106. Sam's Army have been top dogs in CONCACAF for a couple of years now while El Salvador are perennial stragglers. There's a massive gulf in talent.
But not in class, at least not tonight.
When Eliseo Quintanilla opened the scoring in the 15th minute, the crowd in San Salvador erupted. This wasn't just a goal, this was a goal breaking a dry spell that had lasted since 1997.
You read that correctly. Until tonight, the US hadn't conceded to El Salvador since 1997. In fact, in their past six meetings, the US had outscored El Salvador 17-0.
The US was caught out by a quick counter attack and Quintanilla capitalized on the confusion of the back line. There was little Brad Guzan could do when faced with the one-on-one situation. It's a keeper's nightmare.
You would expect the US to quickly regroup and try and get the goal back, but that didn't happen. The Americans continued their uninspired play for the rest of the half, making passes that lacked crispness and accuracy, and missing defensive assignments.
When Cristian Castillo scored in the 72nd minute, I thought it was all over. You don't come back from a two-goal deficit in such a hostile environment playing such uninspired football. It just doesn't happen.
Enter Frankie Hejduk.
Hejduk has long been one of the fittest players in CONCACAF, if not the world. You might be able to run with him for 60 minutes, but rarely does anybody last a full 90 trying to match his intensity.
He began taking advantage of a tiring El Salvador squad by barreling down the right flank. Four minutes later, Jozy Altidore scored on a cross from the right—Frankie's side.
Never mind that the cross didn't come from Hejduk, because it was set up by him. His work on the right had exposed some weaknesses and Ching was able to take advantage. After 76 minutes of ugly football, we suddenly had a match on our hands.
Hejduk again made his presence felt in the 86th minute. On a US corner kick, the ball ricocheted around the mouth of the goal as players tried to position themselves for either a clearance or a shot. Hejduk entered the fray, shoved Jozy Altidore aside, and headed home the tying goal.
It should have been impossible for somebody of Hejduk's stature to put a head to the ball in the midst of that scrum, but he had indeed managed to salvage a draw out of what had looked to be certain defeat.
While there may be younger options at right back for the US, there won't be a better option until Hejduk hangs up his boots. He may not get the accolades of a Brian McBride, but he's just as important to the team now as McBride was in years past.
He's the motor, the heart, the provider of a timely spark.
The US still has a long road to travel if they wish to erase the bad taste that the 2006 World Cup left. Tonight's effort showed that Hejduk is going to be an important leader in the drive to South Africa 2010.