Alfredo Pacheco is flying the MLS banner high in CONCACAF these days. At a time when less high profile, national team players from the region play in MLS than arguably any time in the league’s history (look back at the hexagonal and World Cup qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups for comparison) Pacheco, of the New York Red Bulls, has helped lead El Salvador from the depth of CONCACAF existence, to the hexagonal and Gold Cup front runner in less than two years.
El Salvador had fallen so far in the FIFA Rankings and CONCACAF pecking order that they became the only CONCACAF nation to have ever qualified for a Hexagonal round previously to begin World Cup qualification in the first stage for this cycle. The Salvadorians have also accumulated a terrible Gold Cup record in recent years.
Pacheco had been a solid professional for El Salvador during the decline. He led C.D. FAS to consistent title challenges in the Salvadorian league and as the nation entered 2008 and the insult of having to participate in the first round of qualifying along with the likes of St Kitts, Aruba, Bermuda, Dominica and the Cayman Islands.
But while most of the two leg ties in the first round of qualifying were competitive, El Salvador crushed Anguilla 16-0. In the second round the Salvadorians shocked Panama over two legs. Panama had been tipped by many including myself to make a strong run in qualifying. (Panama did reaffirm some of my faith in them by winning the Gold Cup Qualifying tournament earlier this year beating Costa Rica in the final)
Then El Salvador entered the semifinal round of qualifying as an underdog yet again. Reading some of the Haitian football press, they believed their nation was handed a gift by Panama’s elimination and the advancement of El Salvador.
But it was not to be: with Pacheco leading the defense El Salvador outscored Haiti 5-0 in their two matches and finished second behind flawless Costa Rica to advance to the next round. (The Ticos have won 10 games and lost just once thus far in qualifying.)
Into the Hexagonal went El Salvador tipped once again by myself and others to be the pushover of the round. But the Salvadorians erased a late two goal deficit at home against Trinidad in the first match and then shocked the US with two goals and an eventual draw in the second game.
With Pacheco off to the New York Red Bulls following his impressive displays in the semifinal round, the veteran had the confidence to organize the defense at Saprissa to hold the Ticos scoreless for 69 minutes. The next set of qualifiers saw El Salvador beat Mexico.
Yesterday, Pacheco who is El Salvador’s most capped player on the current squad helped organize a defense that frustrated Costa Rica once again. In front of a partisan crowd at LA’s Home Depot Center, a huge upset was completed.
El Salvador’s resurrection is complete. Now Pacheco can focus on the improbable: qualifying El Salvador for the 4th spot in CONCACAF and a playoff against COMENBOL’s number five. At the same time, his club responsibilities will force him to help give a steady experienced hand to what has been a terrible New York Red Bulls season thus far.
But as the last two seasons taught us, Juan Carlos Osorio, Red Bulls manager can turn a team around at midseason and qualify them for the playoffs. Pacheco is going to be an important part of any Red Bull revival this year. Perhaps he can do a little for New York of what he has helped create for El Salvador.