KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Hexagonal qualification comes down to 90 minutes between the United States and Guatemala on Tuesday night at Livestrong Sporting Park (7 pm ET, ESPN2/TeleFutura, LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com).
A draw would see both the US and Guatemala through to CONCACAF’s final qualifying stage on 11 points, one more than the Jamaicans can muster. A group-clinching win for either side would see the other anxiously watch the action in Kingston as the Reggae Boyz look to make up a gap in goal differential and goals scored against Antigua & Barbuda.
The US arrived in this position by defeating Antigua & Barbuda, 2-1, last Friday as Eddie Johnson marked his return to the national team by scoring twice, including a header in the 90th minute that stole a famous result from the Benna Boyz. Guatemala grabbed a 2-1 victory as well, keeping pace with the Americans via an 85th-minute winner from Carlos Ruiz at home against Jamaica.
Those results set the stage for Friday’s game, in which the stakes are sky high and the atmosphere promises to be spectacular as two sides fight for the right to continue chasing a spot in Brazil in 2014.
Simply put, failure is not an option. Nor, frankly, should it actually happen.
Jurgen Klinsmann understands this, and it was the central message of the US manager’s press conference on Monday afternoon. The US simply need to take care of business and worry about the rest once their place in the Hex is secure.
And although a draw would be good enough in that regard, Klinsmann and his charges won’t truly be satisfied without three points against Los Chapines.
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“It’s all about that game tomorrow night against Guatemala,” Klinsmann told reporters Monday in his pregame press conference. “Beat them, win the group and advance into a very busy 2013.”
WATCH: Klinsmann on tough test vs. Guatemala
Of course, that’s something the US failed to do back in June in Guatemala City.
In that match, the Americans jumped out to a first-half lead through Clint Dempsey before former Chicago Fire midfielder Marco Pappa curled a brilliant free kick over the wall and past Tim Howard to earn a valuable point for the Guatemalans.
Despite holding nearly 63 percent of the possession in that game, the US could only muster two shots on goal – two fewer, incidentally, than the hosts. Guatemala was content to lump balls into forward Carlos Ruiz and wait for their chance on the break or via dead balls, a strategy that eventually paid dividends.
Without a sizeable contingent of injured, ill or suspended players – Landon Donovan, Brek Shea, Edgar Castillo, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones – the US is likely to field a similar lineup to the one that squeaked out a 2-1 result in Antigua & Barbuda.
Possible tweaks include Alan Gordon, who impressed as a substitute, for Herculez Gomez and perhaps a shuffle on the backline with Carlos Bocanegra shifting to his customary central role and Michael Parkhurst filling the ensuing hole at left back. Meanwhile, Sacha Kljestan also made a case for a starting spot after an effective cameo appearance in the Caribbean should Klinsmann opt for a more attack-minded XI.
Either way, the US will go head-to-head with a Guatemalan side buoyed by a 2-1 win at home vs. Jamaica and ready to scrap for the point that would guarantee their place in the next round.
“It could be a very defensive [Guatemala lineup], it could be that they come out with a little bit more offensive ways,” Klinsmann said. “No matter how they build the shape, they will be very very physical. They will run and fight for every ball. It’s the game of their lives really.”
And although the same can’t be said for the US, there’s no doubt sealing a spot in the Hex by any means necessary is the only acceptable end to the night.
They may be 50 places behind the US in FIFA’s rankings ahead of Tuesday night’s clash in Kansas City, but the Guatemalans have plenty of reasons to believe.
For one, a win is surplus to requirements, as a draw would guarantee their place in the next round. June’s performance in Guatemala City certainly saw Ever Almeida’s side grow in confidence, cementing a belief that the US is fallible. Since that draw, Los Chapines are 3-0-0, scoring six goals while allowing just two to put themselves in position to advance.
They certainly believed in themselves before last Friday’s victory over the Reggae Boyz, and there’s no reason think their mindset has changed since then.
“Nobody has been so superior to us that we need to be overly worried,” Almeida told FIFA.com earlier this month. “Of course, we’ll be fully focused and we’ll go out aiming to win the matches. While beating Jamaica is crucial, it’ll go right down to the wire and we’re aware of that.”
WATCH: Kljestan, Johnson on making most of chance
Against Jamaica, veteran midfielder Carlos Figueroa opened the scoring by weaving through the visitors' defense before driving the ball into the roof of the net, showing the kind of attacking impetus and personal brilliance that will be necessary to break down the US backline.
One player who could deliver that is Pappa, who came off after 67 minutes against Jamaica. He’ll almost certainly start against the US, but it remains to be seen how fit he is after a midseason move from the Chicago Fire to Dutch side Heerenveen.
But no matter who Almeida puts on the field, Guatemala can look to another historic result for inspiration. Namely, the Central American’s victory that sealed their place in the U-20 World Cup at the US’ expense.
“There was an important psychological boost for Guatemalan sport, as it showed that nothing is impossible in football as long as you work in an organized manner and are confident in your own ability,” Almeida said. “Now we have a battle-hardened team, not like the typical Guatemalan sides, which were more about technique than fighting spirit. That’s helped us get good results.”
And with one more result, the World Cup will still be on the table. Still, it will take yet another strong performance against the US – or perhaps a bit of luck down in Kingston – for Guatemala to keep that goal within grasp.
USA: Eddie Johnson
The US have struggled mightily to consistently create chances during World Cup qualifying, and it certainly hasn’t helped that the side lacked a consistent presence in the box during that period. After exhibiting his aerial prowess against Antigua & Barbuda, Johnson could be just the man to help turn that around. With more space on the flanks at LSP, he should have more service to work with, especially if he slides into the central strike role.
Guatemala: Carlos Ruiz
Chances are likely to be few far between, perhaps for both sides, and the visitors will rely on Ruiz to help generate them, whether by holding the ball up, drawing fouls or conjuring a bit of magic himself. Klinsmann referenced the former MLS hitman’s bright form on Monday, and the US will hope he cools off just in time to book their place in the Hex.
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander/Spain), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover/Germany), Maurice Edu (Stoke City/England), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland/Denmark)
MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma/Italy), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim/Germany), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS: Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC
GOALKEEPERS: Ricardo Jérez (Marquense/Guatemala), Cristian Álvarez (Municipal/Guatemala)
DEFENDERS: Rafael Morales (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Elías Vásquez (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Edwin Morales (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Jonathan López (Marquense/Guatemala)
MIDFIELDERS: José Contreras (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Manuel León (Xelajú/Guatemala), Marco Pappa (Heerenveen/Netherlands), Carlos Figueroa (Comunicaciones/Guatemala), Marco Ciani (Universidad de San Carlos/Guatemala), Wilfred Velásquez (Suchitepéquez/Guatemala), Sergio Trujillo (Municipal/Guatemala), Claudo Albizuris (Municipal/Guatemala)
FORWARDS: Minor López (Deportes La Serena/Chile), Gregory Ruiz (Suchitepéquez/Guatemala), Carlos Ruiz (unattached), Mario Rodríguez (Municipal/Guatemala), Dwight Pezzarossi (Comunicaciones/Guatemala)