US prepared for rough environment
Four years is a long time in soccer, but not long enough for the veteran members of the current US national team to forget their last trip here.
The record shows that the Americans came to Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores in 2008 and posted a 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory, the first US victory in Guatemala in 20 years. What the record doesn’t show was just how tough that match was, and how Guatemala pushed the Americans for much of the night only to have the United States stand firm and deliver a gutsy defensive performance.
The memories of that match are sure to be recounted among this current US group, especially considering the fact that as many as eight players who played in that 2008 qualifier could be in the starting lineup Tuesday night.
What those players will remember is a night that saw Guatemala smother the US defense with a relentless attack led by some strong wing play. A sold-out 30,000-seat stadium provided an intimidating atmosphere, and only some outstanding goalkeeping from Tim Howard kept the Guatemalans from finding the scoreboard and overrunning the Americans.
The Guatemalans are a different team now than they were four years ago, with a new coach and only three starters from the team’s qualifying loss against the United States in 2008. Despite those changes, the United States fully expects the Guatemalans to come out strong, and in attack mode.
“You have to match their intensity,” US midfielder Clint Dempsey said. “We have to keep our heads as far as yellow cards and stuff like that, but also finish our chances that we do get.”
“There are going to be times when our backs are going to be against the wall and they’re going to be riding the momentum of the crowd,” Dempsey added. “That’s what makes for the great experience of qualifying, is going through those tough times and being able to come out on top.”
The United States is coming off a disappointing showing in a 3-1 victory against heavy underdog Antigua & Barbuda, in a match that saw the Americans struggle to break down the bunkered-in visitors in Tampa, Fla. Guatemala almost certainly is going to employ a more attack-minded approach, as it did in 2008.
“We expect them to try and come out flying, and we know we need to weather that,” Howard said. “They won’t be bunkering at home. For us, it’s about defending well, staying tight and taking the chances when they come. . . . If we nick a goal early, the pressure will be on them.”
The real question for the Americans is whether the defense will be able to handle the onslaught. Question marks about the left back position and central defense remain for a defense that hasn’t quite settled into a dependable unit. Injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo forced Jose Torres into action at left back, but he suffered an injury against Antigua & Barbuda.
If Johnson cannot recover from the calf strain that sidelined him for the team’s past two matches, Jurgen Klinsmann could be forced to move captain Carlos Bocanegra to left back; that would then mean starting either Oguchi Onyewu or Geoff Cameron next to Clarence Goodson in central defense.
Onyewu started in the team’s 2008 win against Guatemala and was one of the side’s top performers in that match. Recently, however, Onyewu has been extremely shaky, which may open the door for Cameron to play in his first qualifier.
Who starts will be key against a Guatemala side that still features the dangerous and crafty Carlos Ruiz, as well as the dynamic Marco Pappa. A former MLS MVP, Ruiz was a handful against the United States four years ago and remains an ever-present threat in the penalty area. Pappa, a star for the Chicago Fire, is a speedy threat who will cause problems for whoever Klinsmann decides to start at left back, though a healthy Johnson could answer the problem.
Working against Guatemala is the recent news that three starters were suspended from the team pending investigations into match-fixing allegations. Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez, Gustavo Cabrera and Yoni Flores were all starters for the current Guatemala side, and all three were starters in the 2008 match. The losses of Cabrera and Flores could prove particularly hurtful to a Guatemalan defense that could be exposed if the Americans find their attacking form.
Klinsmann’s other tough decision will be whether to play a 4-4-2 and re-introduce Jozy Altidore to the starting lineup. Sticking to a 4-3-2-1 and keeping Maurice Edu in the lineup, despite a shaky effort against Antigua & Barbuda, could be the deciding factor once Tuesday rolls around.
If Klinsmann is concerned about his central defense, which he should be if Bocanegra is forced to play left back, then he may have no choice but to start Edu and deploy the 4-3-2-1 to give the back line added support.
Defense was the key to winning here four years ago, and it will be the key once again to avoiding defeat in a match that either will keep the USA atop its qualifying group or breathe new life into Guatemala’s qualifying campaign, which began with a 2-1 loss to Jamaica on June 8.
For the Americans, keeping their composure in a stadium that will be an intimidating environment remains a true sticking point. In 2008, the US held firm amid the chaos. Tuesday will be no different.
“It’s difficult going to any country,” Dempsey said. “Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico. Those are tough games. It’s just an intimidating atmosphere. There’s a real hate for you there. When you’re on the bus and you’re having beer cans thrown at the bus. You’re going out there, and those guys are fighting for their lives.”
“You know you’re going into the lion’s den when you go to other countries in qualifying,” Dempsey added. “It’s exciting to play in those kinds of games, but at the same time you have to put in a professional performance and you have to be ready to deal with your back being against the wall.
“It’s just about knowing that it’s going to be a grind and that if you stick together you can pull through.”