Late last year, Guatemala looked like a team on the rise.
Guatemala had qualified to the final round of CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying and appeared ready to stake its claim as one of the region's best.
Instead, Guatemala is seemingly regressing. After a mediocre qualifying campaign, Guatemala took more giant steps backwards in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Sunday, Guatemala was shredded by regional power Mexico 4-0 in a first-round match.
The loss eliminated Guatemala, who played with the ferocity of a kitten.
"We let ourselves down," Carlos Ruiz said. "We're ashamed. It's unfortunate this happened in the manner that it did ... We're in the midst of World Cup qualifying and it's really a disgrace that we are playing like this right now."
Ruiz was all but invisible against Mexico, a stark contrast to how he opened the tournament. Mexican defenders Ricardo Osorio, Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Salcido did well to mark the FC Dallas striker and keep him from getting loose and putting shots on goal.
Just two days earlier, Ruiz hit for a hat trick in Guatemala's 4-3 loss to Jamaica.
"We gave up far too many goals in these two games," Ruiz said. "Nobody wants to make mistakes but in the end we just continued to commit errors. I don't know if we need to focus more or communicate better or what."
Frustrations boiled over toward the end of the match. Guatemala's captain, Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez, received a second yellow card and sent off in the game's dying moments. Afterward, he appeared to have made contact with the referee while protesting the sending-off.
And while Mexican fans in the stands celebrated the rout, Guatemala's large contingent was left sitting quietly with nothing to cheer.
"There are no words to explain to our fans, no excuses that can be made, for such a lopsided loss," Ruiz said. "I can only thank our fans for having come out here to support Guatemala and apologize on my behalf for how the games turned out."
Now, Guatemala travels to Houston to face surprising South Africa, who despite having an undermanned squad beat Mexico, tied Jamaica and clinched a spot in the second round.
Afterward, Guatemala has an Aug. 17 home date against Panama as they resume World Cup qualifying. Guatemala has four points through five games and is tied with Trinidad & Tobago in fourth place in CONCACAF's hexagonal. Guatemala has home games against Panama, the United States and Costa Rica but must play at Trinidad & Tobago as well as Mexico.
Guatemala is three points back of Costa Rica for third place and an automatic berth to what would be the country's first-ever World Cup finals appearance.
But in order to get back to where the team was last fall, when Guatemala beat Honduras and Costa Rica at home to reach the hexagonal, perhaps change is in order.
"If we need to make changes to this team so we can regain our competitiveness and fight for a World Cup spot, so be it," Ruiz said. "I'm not talking about the coach. I just feel we need more character and confidence to get results."
Luis Bueno is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.