Argentina beats El Salvador 3-0 as Philly prepares for the 2026 FIFA World Cup

“For us as Philadelphia to be a host to players that are so ingrained in soccer worldwide is awesome,” Meg Kane, host city executive of Philadelphia Soccer 2026, said.

Argentina's Nicolas Gonzalez, left, collides with El Salvador's Melvin Cruz during the first half of a friendly soccer match

Argentina's Nicolas Gonzalez, left, collides with El Salvador's Melvin Cruz during the first half of a friendly soccer match, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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FIFA World Cup champions Argentina beat El Salvador 3-0 on a frigid Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field, in the stadium’s first game after the announcement it will host six games in the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

The match was muted by the absence of Argentina’s captain, global superstar and arguably the greatest player of all time Lionel Messi, who had to pull out from the squad after picking up a hamstring injury. Messi’s presence, as it has since his arrival in the U.S. to play for Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami, would have probably ensured a near-full attendance like it did when he faced the Philadelphia Union in Chester last year.

The game drew a far-from-full attendance of around 15,000, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Factors like Messi’s absence, the game being announced just four weeks ago after Argentina’s scheduled games in China were canceled, the weather being 41 degrees Fahrenheit with rain in the forecast, comedian Jo Koy performing across the street at the Wells Fargo Center, March Madness and the question of whether ticket prices probably should have been nudged down a couple days ago all probably contributed to the low turnout.

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Despite Messi’s absence, the world champions fielded a squad full of world-class players, most playing for the biggest club teams in the world like Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atlético de Madrid.

“For us as Philadelphia to be a host to players that are so ingrained in soccer worldwide is awesome,” Meg Kane, host city executive of Philadelphia Soccer 2026, said before the game. “In addition, of course, Argentina is the reigning World Cup champion.”

“I think, for all of us, we’re really excited to be able to draw that type of elite talent to Lincoln Financial Field,” she said.

Kane said that since February’s World Cup schedule announcement, the committee has been working with FIFA in key areas of the city’s preparations, particularly focusing on transportation mobility, commercial rights and safety and security.

Ahead of Friday’s game, the stadium parking lot tailgates were lively, but  a far cry from the ones in October, when 62,284 showed up to see Mexico face Germany.

A strong Salvadoran turnout was present, matching the turnout of Argentina fans in the tailgate.

“We thought we might be like a one-off, repping El Salvador,” said Sofía Vega, a 25-year-old law student at Penn State who came to the game with her boyfriend, Christian Navas, who was born in El Salvador. “But we’ve seen a lot of El Salvador and we’ve heard some cumbia playing. So it’s good to hear the culture playing.”

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Christian Navas, left, and Sofía Vega, right, pose for a photo outside of Lincoln Financial Stadium
Christian Navas, born in El Salvador, and Sofía Vega, born in Costa Rica and studying law at Penn State, said they were excited to see Argentina live. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

It’s fair to call the matchup one-sided — Argentina is the world’s top-ranked team while El Salvador is No. 81 on FIFA’s latest rankings — and once the game began it didn’t take long for Argentina to find the back of the net through a 16th minute corner kick headed in by Cristian Romero.

In the 29th minute, El Salvador came close to equalizing when Jairo Henríquez’s deflected shot flew past the goal for a corner.

Argentina doubled its lead in the 42nd minute when Enzo Fernandez — a player who had a whopping $132 million price tag when he moved to his London club Chelsea in January 2023 — poked in the ball after Giovani Lo Celso’s previous attempt deflected off a defender and into Fernandez’s path.

After the half-time break, Argentina found the back of the net for the third time through Lo Celso’s shot in the 52nd minute.

From there, it was the one-way traffic of Argentina’s attacks, with occasional reprieves coming from the several substitutions that happen in exhibition friendlies like this game. El Salvador goalkeeper Mario González also put in a number of acrobatic saves to keep the score down.

The second half ended abruptly without any of the expected stoppage time added on to the 90 minutes. Argentina will next face Costa Rica at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on March 26. El Salvador faces Honduras the same day.

For the Linc, the next scheduled soccer game will be an exhibition match between English Premier League giants Liverpool and Arsenal on July 31, which has already sold a significant number of tickets.

“That sell-out crowd at Lincoln Financial Field in July is going to be just a taste of what Philadelphia will be like during World Cup 2026,” Kane said.

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