The U.S. men's national soccer team's first appearance in Baltimore since 1997 took a couple of interesting twists this week leading up to Sunday's CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against El Salvador at M&T; Bank Stadium.
The first came Wednesday when U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was the only one of the managers in this grouping to fully exercise an option to make as many as four personnel changes.
While that didn't come as a total surprise considering Klinsmann's willingness to work his roster around the needs of the players' club season, what seems a bit stunning is that Sunday's games will be played before a sellout crowd in excess of 71,000.
Given that only 26,000 tickets had been sold as of Tuesday morning, the late surge was attributed more to the rabid fan base of El Salvador than to the performance of the American team.
The U.S. will play El Savador at 4 p.m., with Costa Rica facing Honduras in another quarterfinal afterward. The semifinals are scheduled for July 24 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Veteran striker Eddie Johnson, by far the most experienced of the four U.S. replacement players, said that sellout crowd "shoud motivate us," but he did not think the potential for a pro-Salvadoran crowd would have much impact on the outcome.
"I think there's enough experience within this team," Johnson said before a practice Friday at UMBC. "We've played Mexico in America [and lost in the 2011 Gold Cup finals before a pro-Mexican crowd at the Rose Bowl], but the most important thing is to focus on is us."
Said U.S. captain DaMarcus Beasley, "Obviously it's always great to play in front of a big crowd, whether that's more El Salvadoran fans or more U.S. fans, for us it really doesn't matter. Baltimore has a great following for soccer. We're excited to play in front of our fans and we hope we can give them a good show."
It isn't clear what was behind Klinsmann turning over nearly a fifth of his roster at this stage in the tournament, and the former German star now in his second year as the U.S. coach won't be available to reporters until today's news conference at the stadium to explain his moves.
The addition of two young and rising MLS defenders — Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler, who played in the three World Cup qualifiers this year, and former Maryland star Omar Gonzalez, whose arrival will be delayed until the semifinals so that he can compete with the Los Angeles Galaxy — shores up a banged up back line.
Veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu, who grew up in Olney, was allowed to leave the team after spraining an ankle in last Saturday's 4-1 win over Cuba in Sandy, Utah. He did not play Tuesday and was given time off to rehab for his upcoming European season.
Asked how strange it was to be called in to a team that has developed its chemistry amid a seven-game winning streak, the 26-year-old Besler said, "It might be a little bit of a challenge. These guys have set the tone for this tournament, certainly. I've got to come in, catch up a little bit, but it shouldn't be that big an issue."
The U.S. offense has slowed down a little the last two games, leading to the arrival of Johnson, who plays for the Seattle Sounders of MLS, and Alan Gordon, who will join San Jose Earthquakes teammate and Gold Cup leading scorer Chris Wondolowski to give the U.S. another scoring threat.
Johnson, who has scored 15 goals in 53 appearances with the national team dating back to 2004, is hoping to bolster an attack that needed a penalty kick by Landon Donovan late in the first half against Cuba to get jump-started and then didn't score until reserve Brek Shea's goal on Donovan's feed in the 82nd minute against Costa Rica.
"It's an honor," said Johnson, 29. "Anytime you get to wear the U.S national team jersey it's an unbelievable achievement and it's something that you don't take for granted. There's a lot of people who would give a lot to be in our shoes and in our position, so you want to make the most of it when you get the call."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ryan Hood contributed to this article.