If the US national team’s last two weeks have been a five-game tournament, then the championship match has arrived.
Forget the ups and downs of the three friendlies and the unimpressive display against Antigua and Barbuda. If the US get three points on the road against Guatemala Tuesday night (10 pm ET, pay-per-view only, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com), all will be forgotten. In the second match for both teams in the six-game semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the US can take a giant step towards the hexagonal, or get sucked into a qualifying melee of which Jurgen Klinsmann and his team will want no part.
Either way, the US know they are in for a dogfight in what will be tough conditions all around in Guatemala City. A choppy, narrow field will only make things harder against a defensive home team, though a rare break in the wet weather of rainy season has been forecast for Tuesday evening. Things are always tough for the US in Central America though. These teams have met here in two of the last three semifinal qualifying rounds – a 1-1 tie on a late goal from Carlos Ruiz 12 years ago, and a hard fought 1-0 win by a 10-man US side four years back.
The Americans are coming off an uninspiring 3-1 victory over tiny Antigua and Barbuda. So besides a strong desire to get the three points that would put them in the fast lane to the hexagonal, they're in a bit of debt in terms of production over the last few games. After a tepid offensive performance last Friday in which they had nearly all of the possession but struggled to turn it into solid looks at goal, the visitors may opt to add a forward up front against a Guatemalan team that keeps numbers back to defend. Klinsmann would risk making his team more vulnerable to counters, but also increase the odds of getting solid chances against a tough-to-breakdown defense.
Herculez Gomez has locked down his spot in the attack with his performances over the last three games, and could partner with Jozy Altidore up front if Klinsmann does elect to go with two strikers. In that case, Maurice Edu would likely give up his central midfield spot, and Michael Bradley would be tasked with hanging a little deeper alongside Jermaine Jones in the middle. Neither Clint Dempsey’s nor Landon Donovan’s places are up for discussion, though Dempsey could always be employed in a more central role.
The big question mark, as usual, revolves around the left back spot, though Fabian Johnson should be closer to reaching fitness. That would save Klinsmann the headache of having to push Captain Carlos Bocanegra out left, and inserting either Geoff Cameron or the struggling Oguchi Onyewu in the middle against a Guatemalan team that likes to speculate with long balls to test the central defenders. Given the thin center back pool, Clarence Goodson is a lock, and Steve Cherundolo will cap a fatiguing two weeks with 90 minutes more on the right.
Despite losing their opening round match at Jamaica, Guatemala are likely to pack it in and play for one point first against the US. With consecutive matches coming up in September against Antigua and Barbuda, head coach Ever Almeida will wager that a point won at home against the US will make the difference in four months’ time.
In that approach, Guatemala employ a pair of defense-first wingbacks on the outside of a 4-5-1 – Almeida has many choices but Rafa Morales and Jonathan López have played those rolls in the past, flanking veteran Luis Rodríguez, Carlos Gallardo and Elías Vásquez. On top of the defensive line, La Bicolor regularly send out two defensive midfielders. Wilfred Velázquez is a regular while young Colombian-Guatemalan Alejandro Galindo could make way for José Manuel Contreras. The attack is largely a three-man operation, with wide midfielders Marco Pappa and either Mario Rodríguez or Arreola creating for Guatemala’s all-time leading scorer, the ever-dangerous Ruiz.
Guatemala’s results haven’t been particularly positive of late. They’ve lost four of six matches this year but did knock off Costa Rica at home 10 days ago, a victory that had put some wind in the Bicolor sails headed to Jamaica. However, a second consecutive qualifying loss would all but extinguish Guatemalan hopes of a first-ever World Cup.
United States: Clint Dempsey
The Premier League marksman hasn’t quite looked himself with the US after suffering an injury late in the club campaign, but this game sizes up as the type of trench battle that’s tailor-made for a scrapper like "Deuce."
Guatemala: Carlos Ruiz
When La Bicolor do find success, it’s usually because "El Pescadito," who’s scored 48 times for his country in 96 caps, finds a way to get free and deposit the ball in the back of the net.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8): Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers/Scotland), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96/Germany), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting CP/Portugal), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland/Denmark)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona/Italy), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Maurice Edu (Rangers/Scotland), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04/Germany), Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca/Mexico)
FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund/Germany), Clint Dempsey (Fulham/England), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Ricardo Jérez Jr. (USAC/Guatemala), Paulo César Motta (Antigua GFC/Guatemala), J.J. Paredes (Comunicaciones/Guatemala)
DEFENDERS (6): Rafael Morales (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Elías Vásquez (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Erwin Morales (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Carlos Gallardo (Marquense/Guatemala), Luis Rodríguez (Malacateco/Guatemala), Jonathan López (Marquense/Guatemala)
MIDFIELDERS (7) Wilfred Velásquez (Suchitepéquez/Guatemala), José del Águila (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Gonzalo Romero (Municipal/Guatemala), José Manuel Contreras (Unattached), Alejandro Galindo (Boyacá Chicó/Colombia), Marco Pappa (Chicago Fire), Carlos Figueroa (Comunicaciones/Guatemala)
FORWARDS (7): Jairo Arreola (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Mario Rodríguez (Municipal/Guatemala), Dwight Pezzarossi (Unattached), Marvin Ávila (Municipal/Guatemala), Carlos Ruiz (Veracruz/Mexico), Minor López (Deportes La Serena/Chile)