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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard looks to the heavens after Saturday's 2-1 World Cup win over El Salvador.

SANDY — It was nearly a disaster. But then it wasn't.

The United States expected to get the full three points for a victory against El Salvador on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in a World Cup 2010 qualifying game, so when the visitors took an early lead, there was a quick feeling of dread for the majority of the 19,066 fans. The U.S. regrouped, however, and scored two goals to answer, holding on for a 2-1 victory.

"The best part was the response when we were down," said coach Bob Bradley. "You feel that pressure for a moment, but there was a real strong response from everybody on the field. That says a lot about what these guys are all about. They understand how difficult these games are, how competitive they are."

A mistake, compounded by a mistake, led to the El Salvador goal. Defender Jonathon Bornstein tried to clear a ball from near the right end line of the defense. He mishit it on the outside of his left foot and watched the ball float toward the middle.

Rodolfo Zelaya collected the ball near the right edge of the penalty area and sent a cross to the middle. Goalkeeper Tim Howard thought the ball was going to get through and started running off his line toward his right, but Christian Castillo rose up and headed the ball toward the goal.

Howard desperately tried to reach back but was just able to get a hand on the ball before it went into the net.

"I'm not really sure what happened," said Howard. "I was coming off my line, and next thing I knew the ball was going by me."

Following the goal, the Americans attacked with a flurry. It appeared it was only a matter of time until they evened the score as Clint Dempsey hit a header over the bar form just a couple of yards out in the 39th minute, and Charlie Davies beat the Salvadoran keeper in the 40th minute only to have defender Marvin Gonzalez clear it off the line.

Only one minute later, Dempsey evened the score. Landon Donovan hit a free kick into the box from about 40 yards from the right side. Dempsey ran on and hit a perfect header into the left corner of the net. Five minutes later and into stoppage time, Jozy Altidore had a near mirror image as Donovan's cross came from the left and the young forward finished with a textbook header.

"I just tried to put myself in the box, and he played a great ball," said Altidore of Donovan's cross. "You put yourself in the right spot, and he is going to find you."

Taking the lead to the break, the U.S. came out in the second half to control more of the action, take more possession and continue to create chances. It appeared Team USA had picked up an insurance goal in the 58th minute on an Altidore strike, but the goal was disallowed, still to the dismay of Altidore.

"I asked, but I didn't get much of an answer," he said of the mystery foul.

Not surprisingly, as the game wound down El Salvador began to throw everything into the attack looking for an equalizer. It nearly got the goal in the 87th minute, but Howard showed why he is a world-class keeper, smothering a close-range shot from Zelaya.

"The one thing that can be said about El Salvador across the field is they compete. They are a bunch of players," said Bradley of the no-quit attitude of the opposition. "You are going to have somebody getting after every play. … Nobody has an easy game against El Salvador. That is a credit to the coach, and a credit to every player and how much they put into it."

With the win, the United States (4-1-2, 13 points) moves one step closer to qualifying for South Africa next year as it keeps pace with Honduras (4-1-2, 13 points) following its win over Trinidad and Tobago. Mexico (4-0-3, 12 points) topped Costa Rica (4-0-3, 12 points) to move into a tie for third. The U.S. continues it quest to qualify as it travels to play Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday in Port of Spain, Trinidad.