One team played like its World Cup dreams depended on every run, every pass, every shot. The other team played like a squad still trying to find an identity, still searching for a formula that can take advantage of an impressive collection of talent.
The United States men’s national team stood just minutes away from winning a game it didn’t necessarily play well enough to win. When Marco Pappa’s sizzling free kick beat Tim Howard in the 83rd minute and set off a wave of emotion at Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores, the Americans were rightly punished for never putting the match out of reach.
Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Guatemala took the US from being a team within striking distance of reaching the final round of World Cup qualifying, to being a team that will need to go through group co-leader Jamaica in a pair of September matchups to regain control.
The US had a fair complaint that referee Joel Aguilar blew his whistle for an important late decision that thwarted what would have been a clear scoring chance for Jozy Altidore. It is tough for anybody to argue, however, that the Guatemalans didn’t deserve a point after pushing the US for most of the second half.
What this US team should feel guilty for is not having done more with a first half it clearly controlled. The Americans overcame the crowd and a fast and frenetic start by Guatemala. They moved the ball well and looked sharper than they had in a while. That quality soccer finally paid dividends when Clint Dempsey worked his magic on the opening goal in the 40th minute. Dempsey’s finish not only silenced the crowd, it had the Guatemalan players hanging their heads and looking every bit like a team resigned to the fate of an 0-2 start in World Cup qualifying.
Everything changed in the second half. Guatemala made three substitutions, and the changes were exactly what the home side needed. The inclusion of target striker Dwight Pezzarossi gave the "Chapines" a hold-up player on the front line, and Pappa gave the team a dynamic element it was lacking in the first half. The result: The Guatemalans really pushed the US on its heels, and Pappa provided the equalizer, breathing new life into their World Cup qualifying campaign.
“In the second half, I thought there were periods where it was just wide open,” Dempsey said. “They were hitting a lot of long balls. We were winning them and we were hitting them on the counter. We just could have been a little more smart with the ball.”
“At the same time, they were fouling a lot,” Dempsey added. “I felt like every time we did get on a break, they were hitting us, and I feel like if the ref would have thrown some cards earlier it would have stopped them from that.”
US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was quick to point out that while his players missed an opportunity to take control of the group with a second victory in a row, he felt they played well, like a team that came to Central America looking for three points rather than one.
“When you control the game the way we did, especially after we scored the goal and passed around the ball really well, you’re a bit disappointed when something like that happens,” Klinsmann said of the late equalizer. “On the other side, they never gave up. They launched long balls and ran for second balls; that’s their kind of approach and that’s always tricky. You’ve got to give them credit for that.”
“Overall, I’m pleased with the performance of our guys. The way they played the game, controlled the game, it was clear to see that we came here for three points — we didn’t come here for a point,” Klinsmann added. “I think that leaves an impression as well on the Guatemalan side. Maybe we both go through and we meet again and they’ll know we’re coming for three points.”
Klinsmann wore his trademark smile and let loose a few nervous laughs in the postmatch news conference, not looking at all worried about the dropped points.
His team is atop its qualifying group, and four points from two games isn’t exactly a bad start, but even Klinsmann must know that his side still isn’t playing as well as it should considering the talent available.
If there was a player whose performance embodied the US team on Tuesday night, it was Fabian Johnson. The German-born left back was outstanding in the first half, defending well and getting into the attack. He helped set up Dempsey’s goal and looked to be a real threat on the flank. Things changed in the second half though, as he struggled defensively and ultimately let his emotions get the better of him when he blatantly fouled Carlos Ruiz, the same player who had been running him into knots throughout the evening.
Johnson’s foul on Ruiz set up Pappa’s free-kick stunner, and Guatemala actually could have scored more goals on the night if not for another outstanding performance from Tim Howard.
The United States did play better soccer in the first half than it had in recent games. You definitely can make an argument that Guatemala fouled the Americans at every turn in order to break up the rhythm they were developing, but defensive mistakes and an inability to find the insurance goal were what ultimately cost the US the victory.
“We feel a little bit dejected not having gotten three points, but they certainly deserve a point,” Howard said. “It puts the onus now on the two Jamaica games, not that any game isn’t more important than the other, but they drew tonight so it’s us and them on top of the group at four points.”
“It’s a huge swing since we play (Jamaica) back-to-back,” Howard added. “We’re going to hope Antigua and Guatemala take some points off each other, if we can pick up some points against Jamaica then we’ll be looking much better.”
The draw will send the Americans into a very tough home-and-home series with Jamaica in September. The match in Kingston on Sept. 7 will go a long way toward determining if the Americans are going to take control of a group they were expected to win handily, or if they are going to need all six games in this group stage to secure a place in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. Guatemala now will play a pair of qualifiers against Antigua & Barbuda; they could set up a run to the next round of qualifying with a pair of victories.
In the end, the Guatemalans deserved a point, and along with that, to see their World Cup hopes survive. As for the US, Klinsmann’s team will head into the summer as a squad that is still trying figure out its identity, a team that still hasn’t shown if it really is ready to be a powerhouse.