SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) – Two goals down and 20 minutes from what would have been one of the worst defeats to a regional rival in years, the United States rallied for a dramatic draw.

Jozy Altidore started the comeback in the 77th minute and Frankie Hejduk scored the tying goal in the 88th, giving the Americans a 2-2 tie at El Salvador in a World Cup qualifier on Saturday night.

“We knew we had to fight back, and credit to the guys that we did it,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “With this team, we never feel like we are out of the game.”

Ranked just 106th in the world, El Salvador built a 2-0 lead against the No. 17 Americans before a boisterous crowd of 30,500 at Estadio Cuscatlan on goals by Eliseo Quintanilla in the 15th minute and Cristian Castillo in the 72nd.

Brian Ching had a chance to win it for the United States seven minutes into injury time but was stopped on an open bicycle kick by defender Mardoqueo Henriquez.

“El Salvador played with a tremendous about of energy. It was our challenge to match it,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “When we found ourselves behind, it took a great effort from our players to fight back and come away with a point. We prepared for this game knowing that El Salvador would be difficult. We found ourselves behind, and that was not part of the plan.”

Seeking its sixth straight World Cup berth, the United States (1-0-1) leads the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with four points heading into Wednesday’s qualifier at Nashville, Tenn., against Trinidad and Tobago (0-0-2), which rallied at home for a 1-1 tie against Honduras (0-1-1).

Mexico and Costa Rica (1-1) are one point back following El Tri’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica in Mexico City. El Salvador (0-0-2) has two points.

Altidore entered in the 61st minute and beat backup goalkeeper Juan Jose Gomez.

, who entered two minutes earlier after cramps felled Miguel Montes for the second time. Altidore scored on a header from 3 yards off a cross from Hejduk, who made an overlapping run and took a feed from Ching, who had taken a headed pass from Clint Dempsey.

“The ball came to the back post, and I was just at the right place at the right time,” said Altidore, who scored his three goal in eight international appearances. “I was just trying to put in on frame. When you are that close, you don’t have to place it that well.”

Hejduk scored his seventh international goal on an open 3-yard header – his first goal in qualifying since a 1996 match against Guatemala in El Salvador – after Landon Donovan’s corner kick bounded off defender Marvin Gonzalez.

“Typically at that point I don’t go up on corner kicks, but it was the dying moments,” Hejduk said. “I made a near post run and then ducked to the far post and no one was with me. I don’t know what happened, but the ball came to the back post and next thing you know it was on my head.”

The United States had been 13-1-4 vs. El Salvador, outscoring the Cuscatlecos 41-10. But Quintanilla, who had five goals in 27 games for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United in 2002-3, scored on a play that began with a giveaway by DaMarcus Beasley. Quintanilla got past the defense, took a pass from Osrael Romero and beat goalkeeper Brad Guzan, sliding the ball inside the far post.

Rodolfo Zelaya got past Beasley on the flank to create the second goal and crossed to the top of the penalty area, where Castillo got free of Hejduk and bounced a header past Guzan.

Guzan started in place of No. 1 goalkeeper Tim Howard, who picked up his second yellow card of qualifying for time-wasting during last month’s 2-0 victory over Mexico at Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. also was without central defender Oguchi Onyewu, who sprained a knee during training Wednesday and was replaced by Danny Califf.

Hejduk started his second straight qualifier at right back in place of Steve Cherundolo, still recovering from a hip injury.

Ching put the ball in the net for the United States in the 43rd minute, but as many as five Americans might have been caught by an offsides trap.

The United States had won its previous seven matches against El Salvador and had shut out the Cuscatlecos six straight times since 1997. The Americans had not even fallen behind El Salvador during a match in 16 years.

AP-ES-03-29-09 0413EDT

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