Neil W. Blackmon
Following the 2-0 U.S. loss to Los Chapines Friday night in Guatemala City, the Americans enter tonight’s match at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio (7 PM ET, ESPN 2) sitting in third in their CONCACAF World Cup qualifying group with three matches to play. The U.S., it should also be noted, sit two goals behind the Guatemalans in goal difference, which becomes relevant should Guatemala and the U.S. finish on the same point total after six matches. With both teams likely to defeat group minnow St. Vincent and the Grenadines later this year, tonight’s match has the complexion of a must-win for the Americans, who even with a draw would essentially have only one match to regain a two point deficit. This wouldn’t be impossible, but with Trinidad and Tobago likely to play it safe against Guatemala and not risk elimination at home, it is safe to say the Americans would prefer to hold more points than the Guatemalans as the two nations enter the final two group stage matches in September.
It is worth remembering, of course, that the U.S. were in a similar position last World Cup cycle, facing, with a hint of irony, Guatemala and needing a result to assure a place in the final round Hex. Carlos Ruiz scored an early goal that had Americans frightened and Guatemala dreaming big, but the Americans rallied, tallying three goals in succession to assure passage to the Hex, where they ultimately became the first CONCACAF nation to achieve qualification to the finals in Brazil. So this isn’t entirely unchartered territory for the U.S. Soccer program, despite having qualified for seven consecutive World Cup finals.
Still, ask an American soccer writer or longtime fan if they felt as frightened last cycle or in the 2002 cycle, where the U.S. also saw its qualifying campaign on the ropes, and I’d wager the near universal answer would be “no.” It was possible, because to some extent soccer is compelling precisely because its history is littered with upsets and results that defy expectation, but most writers and fans felt the U.S. would win the matches they had to win to avert disaster. There is some of that in American soccer circles today, too, with many feeling the Yanks simply won’t lose a must-win on home soil, but there’s also palpable doubt, a notion or idea that this senior side is flawed, lacks passion and imagination and struggles to score, and if ever there were a side that might simply fail to qualify, this is the team. And given that to feel safe, the Americans almost certainly must win- a draw, as noted, creates a terribly difficult path- will the U.S. press? And could it fail? I’d say that’s certainly possible.
Within that framework, this is the biggest match the men’s program has played since losing in Salvador, Brazil to Belgium in July 2014. Practical win or go home.
The usual TYAC preview then, for a grander game.
Series: 27th meeting. US Lead 15-5-6. Guatemala’s last win over the United States was Friday. Prior to that, it happened in a friendly during the Reagan Administration, a full year before Paul Caligiuri did this:
The win Friday by Los Chapines meant that the Americans lost their federation best 21 game unbeaten streak over any country. Tonight, they’ll try to protect another streak: a ten game unbeaten mark in Columbus, which includes a tremendous 6-0-2 mark in World Cup qualifying. This building has been, plainly put, a fortress. Tonight, it is 2018’s Alamo, though perhaps without the tragedy?
Weather: 40’s at kick and clear. Dipping into the low 40’s and perhaps upper 30’s by final whistle. There’s some humidity, apparently, but the cold may affect the Guatemalans and should make most the American contingent, particularly those who play in Europe, the Pacific Northwest and Canada, very pleased. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 3, but it doesn’t matter, since he’s been sent home with an injury.
What to Watch For From Guatemala:
A Herculean effort with the knowledge that a draw puts them on the edge of something that would be incredible for their country. As someone penning a book about the far-reaching shadowland haunt that CONCACAF is in global soccer, there’s something just short of mystical about the chance Guatemala has tonight, given all the country has suffered through over the past decade and given the scandals currently plaguing the country’s soccer federation, which include everything from the brother of the current soccer federation president sitting in a US jail on drug trafficking charges to the country’s most storied player being legally unable to leave the country because he can’t pay his rent. If you step outside of the US bubble, you’d be hard pressed not to cheer for Los Chapines.
Tactically, Guatemala tend to play a very standard 4-4-2 with two fullbacks, Cincotta and Contreras, given license to menace down the flanks. As Jon Levy wrote in the away leg preview, Cincotta is the more dangerous of the two, and he caused the U.S. trouble Friday evening. The Americans attempted to use Mix Diskerud to shade and help when Cincotta entered the final third, but Diskerud isn’t a natural holder and has never been a good defender, which meant that the Guatemalans earned two free kicks on his runs and tested the Americans in the channels when Cincotta cut inward.
The CB’s are FC Dallas project Moises Hernandez and the veteran Rafael Morales. Morales abused Diskerud on the Guatemalan opener, a comedy of American errors starting with Diskerud being assigned Morales. That’s a horrific coaching error, one the U.S. corrected by switching Clint Dempsey on him after the goal. It is unfair to Mix Diskerud to ask him to mark one of Guatemala’s best goal scoring threats in the air, and yet that was the task. The errors ended with the Americans having no one on the near post, meaning an out-of-form Tim Howard was a half arm short of a reaction save that could have been easily cleared with say, an Edgar Castillo on the near post (see DaMarcus Beasley, every Ghana set piece in the second half).
Guatemala will likely use route on balls to Gerson Tinoco, who will start in Carlos Ruiz’s stead (Ruiz is not allowed to leave Guatemala because he can’t pay rent- I have no idea, so don’t ask), or hope the German-based Cincotta and the team’s most technical player, Marco Pappa, can earn some set piece chances when the Guatemalans close down the US pressure and win the ball with a chance to break.
One other thing of note: don’t be surprised, given the group standings, if Claveri and the Guatemalans opt for a 4-5-1. This formation was used to clutter and frustrate Mexico in a 0-0 draw at the Gold Cup last summer, and it may be the correct approach tonight, particularly with Ruiz, who is in his Bartolo Colon years but apparently still capable of splitting American CB’s, back in Guatemala paying debts.
What To Watch For From The Yanks:
Passion and urgency. There’s sea-change at stake. A loss and the Americans almost certainly miss the World Cup, ushering in a new era of American soccer and likely marking or nearly marking the end of the international careers of some storied American players, like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey.
A win and a sigh of relief, with lingering questions about the progress of the program under the near absolute-power of Jurgen Klinsmann, but little doubt that the U.S., at the least, will reach the final qualifying round Hex.
Formation wise: let’s start in the back. Klinsmann would do well to go with Aston Villa man Brad Guzan in goal. Howard made an error that led to the opening Guatemalan goal, one I don’t know if he makes had he been playing much at Everton. Guzan has played some in the Barclay’s Premier League, which is more than Howard can say the past couple months. And Guzan has played in his share of big matches, both at club when he was integral last year to Villa avoiding relegation and for country, throughout last summer. The old idea used to be that Howard commands his box better and is a better communicator, but Howard’s error Friday night was an in-game rebuttal of that framing and his inability to deal with crosses and traffic at Everton are why he lost his job to the less-talented shot stopper, Joel Robles.
Back four: the theme here is just to play people in position, and don’t get gapped, particularly against a team that will only steal a goal if you commit a silly foul in a bad area when you have defending numbers or over the top in a moment of transition. Besler’s absence hurts, but Cameron and DC United’s Steve Birnbaum, who has shown well for Klinsmann in friendlies, would at least be in position and capable of keeping a narrow lane. The need to keep CB’s tethered, and the failure to do so Friday, by the way, is another indictment of playing Howard. Two attacking fullbacks at home makes sense, particularly with Guatemala trying to funnel pressure to the center in a slog. Play Yedlin and Castillo and tell them to hug the sidelines.
In the center, the U.S. will want as much imagination as it can conjure, given its inability to create chances over the past nine months in games against CONCACAF competition set up to absorb pressure and counterpunch when the chance presents itself. While we’ve noted that Guatemala is unlikely to try much counterpunching, that’s simply an argument for talented ball-movers and imagination in the center. Ives Galarcep wrote a compelling argument for Darlington Nagbe’s inclusion in the starting 11 and I agree with it. It would be Nagbe’s first start, but I think it is safe to suggest he’s earned it, having impressed Jurgen Klinsmann off the bench in two consecutive qualifiers. Klinsmann praises Nagbe’s “understanding of the flow of a game,” and his innate ability “to understand defenses and movement.” Those seem like two quality skills for breaking down a defense charging hard at close outs and funneling runners to the center.
Further, Nagbe’s inclusion would allow Michael Bradley to sit deep, where he can help shield another new CB pairing and ping long diagonals if the US can get ahead and Guatemala have to chase. That sounds like a recipe for expanding a lead. Nguyen as the central attacking hub of that unit is an upgrade over Diskerud, who has consistently underperformed in a U.S. shirt, with a handful of goals in games where he was otherwise poor the blush compensating for the lack of a complete performance. Yes, Lee Nguyen hasn’t put together a great performance in a U.S. shirt, and this is a massive match. But at least he’s an attacking midfielder when Bradley isn’t and it seems a good time to try someone other than Diskerud.
Dempsey and Bedoya in positions with which they are familiar behind a poaching forward who makes highly intelligent runs in the scrum is self-explanatory. Dempsey is comfortable from the left both internationally, where he consistently occupied that spot for Bob Bradley’s double-pivot, opposite Landon Donovan, and from his time at Fulham and more interestingly, at Tottenham, where his ability to cut in and draw defenders with him helped Gareth Bale get very rich. I am positive that someone will take umbrage with the Wondo nod, in the inset lineup. That’s fine. I like that he has scored a ton of goals, and the U.S. need to score at least one to not be eliminated from the World Cup. I also like him in this set up more than Bobby Wood, who has shown less of an understanding for keeping CB’s occupied, something the US will need in the final third this evening.
Guatemalan Player to Watch: Paulo Motta, C.S.D. Municipal
The 34 year old Guatemalan goalkeeper was brilliant Friday night, particularly in the second half when the Yanks showed life after the insertion of Darlington Nagbe and threw everything forward in an effort to find their way back into the game. Many felt that if the Americans could find the first goal, the dam would break and the second would follow. Instead, Motta made save after save and the Americans passion and fire eventually extinguished. And that was the home game.
If Guatemala is to find a result, it will need another immense performance from the Municipal man, who almost certainly will be under more pressure than he was Friday evening. We’ve seen epic performances from so many CONCACAF keepers over the years, from Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel in the early 2000s to Shaka Hislop against England in 2006 to Tim Howard, Guillermo Ochoa and Keylor Navas at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Motta can carve out space for his name in that prestigious group with an epic night in Columbus.
United States Player to Watch: Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders
I’m a big fan of some sports cliches because things become cliches when they are very often true. So if “big players make big plays in big games,” and tonight is definitively a big game, then the US will need a big player to come up with a piece or three of excellence to survive the storm. Clint Dempsey is the player the US have on the field, with a nod to Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, who has the biggest history in big games and often, it seems, the grandest sense of occasion. And he appears to still relish big moments, as anyone who saw him do this in the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this year understands.
Dempsey’s “big game” moments include goals in three consecutive World Cups, and that’s a testament to his longevity and technical ability, as well as his passion. If “Goal, Goal USA” is the indelible memory of Landon Donovan’s career, perhaps Clint Dempsey in tears after the US lost the 2009 Confederations Cup Final to Brazil will be the sunsetting image of the raw, unbridled passionate play of Clint Dempsey. It should be restated, I think, that a US loss tonight, or perhaps even a draw, would likely mark twilight in the long, storied career of the Texan. So maybe tonight can be another remarkable footnote in the many memories of a player nearing the end of his international career, still capable of a magical night to extend the journey of he and his team a little longer.
Prediction: Guatemala 1, United States 1. The US will rally after an early set piece goal, but a furious comeback effort will fall short, as will Russia, come September.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached @nwblackmon on Twitter and at firstname.lastname@example.org.