Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
There are any number of scenarios that could see the U.S. Men’s National Team qualify for the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but there is no confusion about what the Americans need to do tonight against Guatemala.
Win or tie, and the U.S. can start making plans for 2013 qualifying.
There will obviously be some jitters among U.S. fans who fear the worst-case scenario, which would involve the Americans losing and Jamaica winning by a big enough margin against Antigua & Barbuda to knock the U.S. out of qualifying. That scenario would cause the United States to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
History is on the home team’s side tonight at Livestrong Sporting Park, where American fans from all over the country are converging. The U.S. hasn’t lost a home qualifier since 2001, and they haven’t lost a home qualifier where American fans were the majority since 1969 (a loss to Haiti in San Diego).
From that 1969 loss to now the Americans have lost two home qualifiers. One was to Mexico in Los Angeles in 1972, the other was to Honduras at RFK Stadium in 2001. In both instances, the Americans were treated like the road team, with visiting supporters outnumbering their American counterparts by a considerable margin.
Tonight, at Livestrong Sporting Park, a strongly pro-USA crowd will gather to see their team book their place in the Hex. A draw will do, but after a round filled with lackluster performances, the U.S. will be looking to flex their muscle and show that they are still very much a CONCACAF powerhouse.
Jurgen Klinsmann made it clear on Monday that the Americans would not be playing for a draw, and with Guatemala entering the match short-handed defensively, it only makes sense that the U.S. would want to go after the visitors to secure a lead and give themselves a cushion in order to avoid any late-game craziness.
Guatemala will sit back and defend. They know a draw secures their place in the Hexagonal and opening up and trying to attack on the road doesn’t make much sense. They can pick their spots on the counter, and look to draw fouls near the penalty area with the hope of setting up Marco Pappa for some more free kick magic like he delivered in the June draw between these teams in Guatemala City.
For the Americans, Michael Bradley will be the lynchpin of the midfield, an imposing presence who should dominate the middle of the park. If Klinsmann starts Graham Zusi and Sacha Kljestan in the same midfield, the Americans could dominate possession and create plenty of chances for the projected forward tandem of Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson.
Dempsey endured a disappointing showing against Antigua & Barbuda, a victim of the awful playing surface that made combination play and runs at the defense nearly impossible. At Livestrong Sporting Park, with an immaculate playing surface to play on, Dempsey should find his groove again.
The match will be a homecoming of sorts for Johnson, who enjoyed a stint with the then Kansas City Wizards before moving to England. Johnson is coming off a dream two-goal game against Antigua & Barbuda, and he could find similar success against a Guatemala defense playing back-up centerbacks because of injuries (though it should be noted Guatemala’s defense looked pretty solid against Jamaica last Friday).
The real question for the Americans is how will the back-line shape up. Carlos Bocanegra struggled at left back against Antigua & Barbuda, while Clarence Goodson also had his share of problems. It seems unlikely that Klinsmann will use the same exact back four, and with Carlos Ruiz being such a physical presence up top for Guatemala, it is a safe bet that Bocanegra will return to central defense.
With Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron dealing with Ruiz, a projected fullback tandem of Steve Cherundolo and Michael Parkhurst would be well-suited to dealing with Guatemala’s most dynamic player, former Chicago Fire star Marco Pappa. The Heerenveen winger brings pace from either flank, and along with being a threat on set pieces, he can also run at defenders and test Tim Howard with shots from distance.
If the Americans can contain Ruiz and Pappa, and if Dempsey can work his magic alongside Johnson, the U.S. should once again defend home turf in qualifying, and secure ten more World Cup qualifiers in 2013. The only need a draw to advance, but you can bet that this U.S. team will be looking to put on a show after failing to impress throughout this round of qualifying.