“It has evolved, it is much more competitive, with many players who play in Europe and with many virtues, but in 90 minutes of football anything can change."
Those were the words chosen by veteran Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz to describe Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in an interview with local outlet Siglo21 this week. Words that should serve as a simple but effective warning for a US team carrying some noticeable weaknesses into tonight’s World Cup qualifier at rain-soaked Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City (10 pm ET, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com).
Guatemala’s historical record against the Yanks offers grim reading for the home side. But as Ruiz – the cunning hitman whose prolific and well-traveled career has revolved around the nation he and his teammates face tonight – noted, they have good reason to believe that they can wreak enough havoc over 90 minutes to snag a positive result against their North American guests.
PREVIEW: GUA vs. USA
In fact, they have a very recent example of a team in their own colors doing exactly that.
Guatemala’s Under-20s knocked off their heavily favored US counterparts in the same stadium just 14 months ago, winning a wild CONCACAF U-20 World Cup qualifying quarterfinal 2-1. That upset sent the young Yanks, who had quietly nurtured hopes of making noise at that year’s big event in Colombia, crashing out well ahead of schedule as the hosts earned a place at their expense.
The US entered that contest with an all-time 4-1-1 record in U-20 qualifying matches against Los Chapines, the sole loss taking place way back in 1964. The substantial talent at coach Thomas Rongen’s disposal seemed sufficient to overcome the home-field advantage provided by a hostile crowd in a distant locale. But once the whistle blew, Zac MacMath, Perry Kitchen and the rest of the US squad were knocked off kilter by the Guatemalans’ guile and intensity, and were given few breaks by unsympathetic Mexican referee Roberto García Orozco.
Rongen’s men failed to seize the initiative and paid the price, as they fluffed some early scoring chances before surrendering a set-piece goal in the first half when slipshod marking allowed Gerson Lima a free header on a corner kick. Finding themselves in a dogfight, the Yanks allowed the game to flow far too openly and their fate was sealed when Henry López scored a scrappy winner mere moments after Conor Doyle had leveled matters in the 65th minute.
The senior squad should have far too many veteran heads on the field to allow a similar fiasco tonight. Yet a few crucial matchups may offer hope to Los Chapines – and perhaps the most important one involves Ruiz. If Klinsmann moves Carlos Bocanegra out wide to fill the problematic left back position, the US captain will need to be replaced at center back, likely by Oguchi Onyewu or Geoff Cameron, with Michael Parkhurst a longer shot.
Both Onyewu and Cameron have vulnerabilities liable to be exploited by “El Pescadito” and his legendary blend of gamesmanship and opportunism – the latter a shortage of international experience, and the former a lack of lateral quickness and match sharpness. Few CONCACAF forwards can wriggle into space in and around the penalty box like Ruiz and even the cerebral Parkhurst, who looks like a contender to fill in on the left should Bocanegra stay central, might struggle to keep tabs on the 2002 MLS MVP.
Whatever Klinsmann chooses, shuffling the backline at this delicate moment is far from ideal and Guatemala coach Ever Almeida, who also oversaw last year’s U-20 upset, can be expected to align his team with an eye towards maximizing the visitor’s weak points. Chicago Fire dangerman Marco Pappa can roam either flank for Los Chapines and may drift around the attacking third in search of openings through which to feed Ruiz. Team shape and defensive discipline will be pivotal, especially given the fact that realistically, given the picture in Group A, a draw should suffice for the US.
And like that stunning evening last year, it is imperative that the Yanks keep a firm hand on the game’s tempo to reduce the effects of all the intangibles – crowd, field conditions, refereeing, play-acting – outside their control, so their superior overall quality can shine through.