GUATEMALA CITY — Going into Tuesday's qualifier, the US national team was familiar with the factors it would be up against in Guatemala City. The Americans even had a game plan for dealing with the hostile environment at Estadio Mateo Flores.
Play through the slips and tumbles on the rough pitch? Check. Take the game to Guatemala early and quiet the crowd? Check. Carry on with business when puzzling officiating threatens to waylay the entire effort?
Hold that thought.
The US generally dealt well enough with the hostile elements on Tuesday night, accepting the facts of life of playing a high energy qualifying match in Central America. But where Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar was concerned, frustration was the norm.
"I'm not even going to get into the officiating," said Herculez Gomez. "You guys saw what you saw. It is what is."
Though Aguilar's officiating was generally equally inconsistent for both sides, the Americans probably did have some grounds for contention. There seemed to be some elbows flying around from the Guatemalan defenders from the start, as the Salvadoran and his linesmen implemented a policy of looking the other way.
Gomez was particularly upset about an off the ball elbow to his face early in the first half, which set the tone for a rough match. All in all, much of the off the ball action was more fit for the domain of Gomez's brother, mixed martial arts champion Ulysses, than a soccer field.
"I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to see out there that you're trying to play soccer and the opponent has different ideas," Gomez said. "Some things go unnoticed and that's the way it is in this region, and we've got to rise above it."
As well as the US did in rising above the other factors stacked against them Tuesday, though, the officiating proved a constant distraction. Even on occasions — and for the record there were plenty — when Aguilar did spot Guatemalan infractions, the vociferous crowd did its best to encourage him to overlook the next one.
"You come down away from home in CONCACAF and it's never easy," said Tim Howard. "The crowd makes it difficult on the referees."
Beyond the overlooked flying elbows and rough tackling, and quick draw cards for the US, Aguilar's most debatable decision came late in the match. The Yanks looked set to extend their lead to two when Clint Demspey played Jozy Altidore free into the box, but rather than give advantage Aguilar called the play back, signaling a Guatemalan foul on Dempsey. The US wasted the free kick, and moments later the Guatemalans had tied the match.
Given the mediocre result, even if the US made strides on Tuesday in terms of dealing with a hostile environment, they've still got some room to improve in overcoming all the elements — even if those include a theoretically neutral referee.
"We've seen that a thousand times," Howard said. "That's exactly what those games look like. But it's easy to talk about it on paper and dealing with it is another thing."