2014 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, October 2012, USMNT

Tie, Or More than Likely, Go Home: USA-Guatemala Preview

Livestrong Park should be rocking tonight, where the USMNT needs at least a tie to avoid potentially failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Jon Levy

Tuesday night could become one of the two or three best moments of Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge of the national team. It could also become debatably the worst night in the history of the United States Men’s National Team. Not qualifying for a World Cup the first time in the modern era (our definition of “modern” being post-Caligiuri “shot heard round the world” goal); failing to even make it as far as CONCACAF’s final round. I can’t think of anything worse.

As per the official correspondence from US Soccer, this is how the possible scenarios look:

U.S. Win

  • U.S. wins Group A with 13 points and qualifies for Final Round
  • Guatemala finishes with 10 points and must await result of Jamaica-Antigua

U.S.  Tie

  • U.S. finishes tied with Guatemala atop Group A with 11 points and both countries qualify for Final Round

U.S. Loss AND Jamaica Tie or Loss

  • Guatemala wins Group A with 13 points and qualifies for Final Round
  • U.S. finishes in second place in Group A with 10 points and qualifies for Final Round
  • Jamaica finishes in third place (with 7 or 8 points) and does not qualify for Final Round

U.S. Loss AND Jamaica Win

  • Guatemala wins Group A with 13 points and qualifies for Final Round
  • U.S. and Jamaica finish tied on points with 10 each and qualified team is determined with tiebreakers (see below)

TIEBREAKERS: Here are the tiebreakers if two teams are equal in points:

a) Greatest number of points obtained in all group matches;
b) Goal difference in all group matches;
c) Greatest number of goals scored in all group matches;

If two or more teams are equal on the basis of the above three criteria, their rankings shall be determined as follows:

d) Greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned;
e) Goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned;
f) Greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned;
g) The goals scored away from home count double between the teams concerned (if the tie is only between two teams).

Tonight is a night for America’s brightest stars, with all due respect to great stories like Alan Gordon…

Thankfully for the Yanks, they currently have a three goal lead over Jamaica on goal differential, though that would obviously shrink or go away if the US loses and Jamaica wins. And should we get down to further tiebreakers, the US does hold a three goal over Jamaica in goals scored, and the Yanks have the only away goal in the head to head with Jamaica. As such, the United States has a small amount of breathing room should they fail to win at home tonight, but that breathing room is entirely contingent on Jamaica’s performance against Antigua and Barbuda, and we don’t need to explain how troubling it would be to have to rely on the worst team in the qualifying group to overperform. The better scenario is obvious– a win, and a night where, with all due respect to Alan Gordon, the USMNT’s best stars perform brilliantly.

Onto the match:

Series: This is the 23rd meeting between the United States and Guatemala. The Yanks lead the all-time series 12-4-6, but Guatemala certainly has the confidence it gained from the draw earlier this year in Guatemala City. It’s true that “Los Chapines” have not defeated the US since 1988, but the Americans reminded us that history itself doesn’t win soccer matches earlier this summer in Kingston. The Americans are 10-0-3 against Los Chapines all-time on American soil– so in order for something historic to happen tonight (the US not qualifying for the World Cup)– well, something historic will have to happen.

Weather: 75 degrees and sunny at kick, which is to say, seasonably warm. Very little wind.

What will we see out of Guatemala?

Normally I’d use this section to describe a physical Guatemala team, typically heavy on tackles and light on goals. And that may be what we see on Tuesday night in Kansas City. But a quick look at their qualifying results reveals five matches in a row in which Guatemala has at least scored. I can’t think of any other five match span in which Los Chapines have pulled off that feat, let alone a span encompassing important World Cup qualifiers.

With the US defense keying on Carlos Ruiz– it may be up to Dwight Pezzarossi to exploit a patchwork American backline…

I’m not theorizing that manager Hugo Almeida has inspired some sort of positive football revolution in Guatemala. But it’s obvious that this team is executing their hard-to-watch “system,” and getting positive results from it. That presents a tall task for our Yanks. A Guatemala team that gets a goal or two every game, and retains its trademark defensive hustle and bite is a scary opponent.

As far as tactical specifics– Guatemala aren’t as fast as Jamaica or Antigua and Barbuda. But they are crisper on the ball than the latter and tactically more formidable than the former. They will play their customary 3-5-2, and as they did in Guatemala City, they’ll ask Marco Pappa and Dwight Pezzarossi to orchestrate things for an on-fire Carlos Ruiz.

They may switch formations if they get an early lead– a 5-3-2 being most likely– and there’s an argument they could do that from the outset, as all they need to get to an improbable Hexagon grouping is a draw. It’s impossible to speculate as to whether that’s an advantage for them or not. The reality is they are not technically impressive enough to overwhelm the Americans, particularly on foreign soil, and they aren’t skilled enough to play keep away in hopes of earning a draw, either. But if they score the first goal– all bets are off. Tim Howard wisely pointed out in the build-up the Americans will need to avoid free kicks. This isn’t just a Pappa-esque reminder– it’s been true throughout this group stage: from the run of play, the Americans have only given up two goals. Opposing free kicks have been the source of all trouble. That plays into Guatemala’s strength, as Ruiz is second in the grouping in free kicks drawn, and with Guatemala likely to only pressure with counters, discipline will be critical for a back grouping that will see Jermaine Jones in street clothes, and could see Bocanegra again out of position and Fabian Johnson out.

Not a banner night for Carlos Bocanegra Friday. But you can’t sit the captain in the biggest match in two-plus years. So what’s a gaffer to do…

The Yanks:

The US was hampered last match from a personnel standpoint. Only one true-ish winger. No left back. Players deployed out of position to compensate. As a result, the Americans looked a bit out-of-sync. They appeared unsure whether they should push tempo or maintain possession. They looked horribly uncomfortable trying to dictate proceedings throughout (an unfortunate side-effect, we fear, of Klinsmann’s grand experiment to transform the US from a masterfully conditioned, counterattacking force to a stylish, high-line holding soccer power capable of consistently taking the game to opponents). Michael Bradley was back, and that helped things– giving the US polish on the ball and space in the center, but it also hurt things by functionally removing Danny Williams from the proceedings (he retreated the more space Bradley occupied). Meanwhile, the Americans seem so preoccupied with trying to dictate proceedings they’ve grown sloppy on the counterattack– a problem magnified by the absence of Landon Donovan. Those problems should persist in this match, but another match of trial and error will put Jurgen in a better position to cope.

Aside from those obvious disadvantages, the Yanks did, statistically speaking, do a good job of retaining possession in Antigua, and more importantly, trying to use that possession to push the ball up the field. Friday night wasn’t a banner performance from the US, but it wasn’t a repeat of the debacle in Kingston either. I expect Jurgen to make his adjustments, keep Zusi and EJ in the squad, and probably give Kljestan a start on the left wing. Hopefully the late rescue from wily Alan Gordon isn’t needed this time.

The most troubling thing? What to do with Captain America. He’s in the lineup. Any suggestion to the contrary is foolish and would forget the mistakes of earlier in this group, where Bocanegra’s absence was visible and the results were stunning. Given the injuries, however, you have to wonder if he can handle another night at left back, even against a Guatemalan side that isn’t nearly as fast as the Benna Boys were Friday evening. Bocanegra hasn’t played that position at the club level in four years, he has only sparingly played high-level football over the last year and a half and he seemed too eager to drift in with the central defenders Friday evening when taking up an advanced position would have been a better move, especially given the fact he was covering for Eddie Johnson, who brace or no, demanded better cover. We shall see, but I’d imagine that’s the one spot on the field Klinsmann’s given the most thought to in the past three days.

Guatemalan Player to Watch: Dwight Pezzarossi

Guatemala captain and star striker Carlos Ruiz is firing on all cylinders and ripping the back of the net as often as he ever has over the course of the past five matches. The USMNT knows that, but it won’t change how they play him. Giving Ruiz absolutely no space and as few chances as possible is always the first defensive point of emphasis when the US plays Guatemala.

Assuming the Yanks can do the job as usual, the onus will be on Guatemala to create chances for their secondary goal scoring options. Pezzarossi is a cultured veteran who can work the ball to others in the final third, along with taking his own shots. Guatemala’s made a habit lately of scoring second half goals, and Pezzarossi (who’s comfortable coming on as a substitute of starting the match) could be a big part of that late success again if the American defense falls asleep.

Here’s betting it’s his night. The lights are brightest. It would just make sense.

US Player to Watch: Carlos Bocanegra (and the best player in CONCACAF…)

We started in on this above but it bears repeating. In a justifiably scathing review of Bocanegra’s left back play on Friday night, Brian Sciaretta cited Boca’s time at left back for Rennes, but acknowledged his lack of his pace en route to giving the captain a player rating of 3.5 for the match. That rating also factored in primary responsibility conceding for Antigua’s equalizing goal. Sciaretta ended his thoughts on Bocanegra with, “This is likely the last time we see Bocanegra on the left for the national team.”

Not so fast my friend.

I mean Brian was entirely justified in writing that, but Fabian Johnson’s illness was worse than everyone hoped, and now we’re looking at a second important match with no real left back. And that’s the dilemma, as we’ve noted. So Boca will most likely be forced to deputize at left back again. But even if Jurgen tries something new on that flank, all eyes should still be on Bocanegra in the middle, as he settles in for ninety plus minutes of kickboxing with Carlos Ruiz.

Prediction: Guatemala 1 – 3  USA

I keep on predicting the Yanks are going to find the keys to the ignition and score a bunch of goals. Obviously I’m still of that opinion. More assists for Graham Zusi. I’m hopeful that’ll become the safest bet in US Soccer…other than, you know, pressure on, bright lights, yes… the Americans still have the finest player in CONCACAF. It’s a Clint Dempsey kind-of-night. Bet against him. Really.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of the Yanks Are Coming. You can e-mail him at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon