Featured, June 2012

In Guatemala, Klinsmann-Led Yanks Face TrickyTest, With Chance To Prove A Point

CONCACAF Road qualifiers, with their chain length fences, urine bags and batteries. Always a grind. Klinsmann's first taste comes tonight.

Jon Levy

The Yanks now sit at two wins, one loss, and one draw in Jurgen Klinsmann’s five match non-tournament. More importantly, the team’s shown gradual progress towards the manager’s ideal throughout this camp, as Klinsmann continues to figure out which players work at which positions within his preferred formation.

Most important of all, despite some issues in the final third, and a few lingering tactical questions, the USMNT won their first World Cup qualifying match on Friday night, and is in Guatemala for the second match within the initial four team group. I am really excited about this match, and if you’re reading this blog, you should be too. Plus, the last time these two teams got together, the U.S. won 13-0 and Hope Solo…nevermind. Why don’t I write about it?

Series: This is the 22nd all-time meeting between the United States and Guatemala. The United States holds a 12-4-5 edge in the series,  and has not lost to the blue and white clad side affectionately called “Los Chapines” since a 1-0 defeat in January 1988. That said, the U.S. are only 2-4-3 all-time in Guatemala, with a grinding, eyesore of a 0-0 tie occurring as recently as 2005. The Bob Bradley version of the Yanks did defeat Guatemala 1-0 on a Carlos Bocanegra set piece header in 2008, the last time a qualifier between these two sides was played at the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores.

Weather: 68, humid and likely some lingering thunder at kick. It would appear the U.S. is going to have to play another match on a soggy field– only this time there won’t be the insurance policy of an NFL pitch to ease the usual, attendant wet-pitch concerns.

Onto the match-ups.

Guys like Marco Pappa are nice pieces, but there aren't enough of them. The real question is whether the U.S. can unlock a gritty, physical backline.

What will we see out of Guatemala?

Nothing pretty.

Guatemala doesn’t aspire to any sort of progressive brand of football, nor is manager Ever Almeida any sort of master tactician. What does that mean in good old fashion American English? Just that Guatemala will try and clamp down on, and bully the Yanks, hoping to score a goal on the break (or wherever). But they’re not all that concerned with the goal scoring part. This is a team that will prioritize defense, physicality, and intimidation against the US. Their overall lack of tactical prowess was on full display Friday night in a 2-1 qualifying loss to Jamaica, where the Reggae Boyz ran around, past and through Los Chapines, and looked fully the side in control throughout (a Dwight Pezzarossi goal in stoppage time kept the goal differential at a neat one). That was, to be fair, a road game for Los Chapines– and it would be surprising if they put ten men behind the ball all evening– but here’s the rub– it wouldn’t be too surprising, especially given the Canada and Panama (Antigua and Barbuda?) blueprint for playing the Klinsmann incarnation of the Yanks. Bottom line– this will be a physical grind for the U.S. against a side that often deploys a five man, Paraguay style backline, and when you couple that with the Central American crowd and all the pleasures a trip to one of those venues bring, it’s a black-eye type of qualifier.

I know that last sentence made Guatemala sound like a team with bigger and stronger dudes than our beloved USMNT, but are they really? Of course not. They’re just a CONCACAF team playing gracious host to the United States in a World Cup qualifier, and you’ve gotta know they won’t mind playing dirty in order to get a point or three.  Sure, guys like the Chicago Fire’s Marco Pappa are nice pieces, but there aren’t enough of them. So how else would you expect them to try and make up for that sizeable talent deficit?

Don’t scoff at the strategy either. It’s worked against a few US teams in the past, and the power of the intangibles, from the crowd, to the stadium, to the CONCACAF refereeing crew, could make a huge impact in favor of La Furia Azul (yeah, that’s actually one of their nicknames; pretty rad). As anyone who watched Manny Pacquaio beat up Tim Bradley this weekend knows, winning a match does not always mean you get to leave with the belts. And make no mistake, this US team must leave Guatemala with three points. That’s the only acceptable result. And anyone who saw how difficult Paraguay made it for the U.S. last year in Nashville, utilizing a similar formation, has a bit of an idea how difficult that result may be to attain.

As lackluster as the U.S. were Friday, isn't part of the reason we brought in Jurgen Klinsmann for nights like Tuesday? To win, and do it with style? Herculez Gomez hopes so.

The Yanks:

This is it. This is why Jurgen Klinsmann was brought in to coach the national team. Matches like this one presented a perceived weakness in the Arena/Bradley regime, and now our Bavarian Soccer Star/California Zen Master is here to fix the glitch.

For years, games like this one in Guatemala have frustrated American fans who hoped to see classy American goal scorers like Landon Donovan look classy and score goals. The determined opponents would grind for ninety plus, hardly giving the American offense room to breathe, let alone dribble or pass. At home and at bars we cursed loudly, threw empty beer cans across the room, and indignantly screamed the names of second division Central American defenders that we’d never heard of before the match. The hope, of course, being that by invoking his name, the mystery man’s inexplicable spell over anyone from Clint Mathis to Clint Dempsey might be broken, and true order restored to the kingdom. This never worked.

But US Soccer saw our plight, and responded in kind. Jurgen Klinsmann was hired for many reasons, most of them really good, and this was one of them. No longer should we have to endure those frustrating evenings when a team that is outclassed by such a wide margin as Guatemala is able to turn a match with the US into a coin flip proposition. Klinsmann’s possession oriented style, with its quick ball movement, and cultured attack is supposed to deliver us from those long nights of nail biting and unintentional John McEnroe impressions.

Klinsmann's proactive football is intended to make these nights a bit easier on the eyes, without sacrificing results.

But here’s the catch, and it’s a good one for those of you who enjoy a subtle plot twist as much as I do. Think back for a second to all those tense evenings where you made the occasional scene at the bar, or cursed out your TV and scared your dog. Think back to the Bob Bradley era in particular; it’s not that hard. Now fast forward to the full time whistle, and realize the sizeable discrepancy between the sometimes agonizing gameplay, and the generally positive results attained by ole Bobbo’s teams. Was he guilty of constantly getting us into those coin flip games, when we should have been dictating play regularly and firing on a few more cylinders? Absolutely. But he also coached a team that knew exactly how to win in those situations. So maybe terms like, “coin flip,” “fifty-fity,” “could go either way,” weren’t so appropriate after all.

But what’s done is done, and the change in management was necessary to kick-start the next stage in the evolution of US Men’s soccer. But will it bring the results that we’ve become accustomed to, in addition to the potential on-field dominance that’s supposed to keep us sipping and smiling in relative silence? Eventually it will. Eventually it better. And “eventually” better come relatively soon. Because a progressive, eye-pleasing style unaccompanied by the level of results that Bob routinely delivered is not a step forward for US Soccer, and Jurgen knows this.

So what do we need to see? Well, we hinted at it above. But we’ll need the one-two combinations from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey that looked effective at times in Tampa Friday night. And we’ll need a central midfield that doesn’t necessarily sit on the ball or slow the game down to the point where an opponent sitting back dictates simply by controlling pace/being able to constantly adjust. And while we’re doing these types of things to be effective in attack, we’ll need the Bob Bradley damage control stuff: mark up on your set pieces, watch Carlos Ruiz on the counter, etc. to still function like clockwork. Jurgen knows this too. Time to pull it off.

Another backline duel with one of the old-time US villains tonight: Carlos Ruiz.

Guatemalan Player to Watch: Carlos Ruiz

Let me preface this by saying the real Guatemalan player to watch is the pesky no-name player I mentioned above. The defender or midfielder who practically takes up residence inside American jock straps for ninety minutes, stomping ankles, calling for red cards, and generally trying to turn the soccer match into an episode of Tuesday Night Fights (seriously, that used to exist, Google it). Venturing a guess: Carlos Gallardo- 36 caps, plays professionally in Guatemala, has three set piece goals as an international… you get the point.

But since that player could be anyone, or multiple players, and could change every ten minutes or so, we’ll just go with the man tasked with finding the back of the net. Carlos Ruiz will have a thankless task in front of him when these two teams meet, that’s probably why he’s scored so many goals for his clubs in the MLS over the years, just getting that USA/Guatemala frustration out. And yes, he’s capable of the absolutely breathtaking, as any Chicago Fire fan will tell you. This is unreal.

Then again, Ruiz is also capable of being an absolute villain of the most proper USMNT sort. We at TYAC have long had him on our “Top Ten U.S. Villains List”, and when Tim Howard calls you a “dirty player,” well, how about a refresh? The last time the U.S. visited the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores, he was enemy number one. Who can forget, who should ever forget, his cleats up assault on Tim Howard after Howard frustrated him on a long run? And who could forget how the U.S., playing with 10 men after a Cherundolo red card, seemed content to let their goalkeeper deal with the assault on his own? Yes, Ruiz is a lightning rod. Let’s hope the U.S. is ready to corral him in a Thunderstorm tomorrow evening.

Despite not bagging many goals against the Yanks, Ruiz is more accustomed than anyone to playing and finding success in his national team’s generally “negative” fashion. He is the captain and the all time leading goal scorer for La Furia Azul, and like Landon Donovan, he’s currently sitting on 49 international goals. My spider-sense is telling me at least one of these guys gets number fifty in this match.

US Player to Watch: Herculez Gomez

Like most fans of the US Men’s National Team, I love Herculez Gomez. What’s not to love? He’s a classic underdog story. He’s got a tireless work rate and a nose for goal. And let’s not discount the other intangibles. After all, he weighs in with one of the best names in all of sports. And despite all his success he’s still a real enough dude to write massively insightful and very readable guest posts for our boys over at The Shin Guardian.

Herculez doesn’t have the raw physical measurables of the once and future starter Jozy Altidore, but I love the fact that Jurgen Klinsmann is giving him a chance to defend his spot. He played well and scored when given the opportunity against Antigua and Barbuda, so he should get another chance to shine in Guatemala, where that tireless workrate is likely to be necessary to create and seize chances against the home nation. This is what we at TYAC used to refer to as a “Brian Ching Match,” and Herc should be able to get down with that.

The U.S. will come twelve goals short of matching the ladies' victory margin. That's okay.

And if Jozy is handed the start in Guatemala for some reason, Gomez is more comfortable operating as a super sub than anyone else on the team. It’s actually a bit ridiculous that it took so long for Klinsmann to call him.

Prediction: Guatemala 0 –1  USA

Bobbo Bradley redux, maybe even with a red card on a U.S. defender again. The Yanks get an ugly goal off a set piece (Goodson), make the lead stand up, and take the summer off with two qualifying wins in the bag.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can, and should, follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon