By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (June 11, 2012) US Soccer Players — Four days after posting a 3-1 win over tiny Antigua and Barbuda before a hospitable Tampa crowd to open World Cup Qualifying, the USA will face Guatemala on Tuesday (10pm ET – PPV) before a decidedly more partisan crowd at the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores in Guatemala City. The Guatemalans are a lot more talented than Antigua and Barbuda – and far hungrier for a victory after starting the Semifinal Round with a loss to Jamaica.
Even for USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann, winner of a World Cup in 1990 and European Championship in 1996 as a player with his native Germany, what awaits him will be a new experience. Fans pelting the players with debris, sub-par field conditions, unbearable heat and humidity and police in riot gear are the norm in that part of the world during a high-stakes match. For players like Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, and Landon Donovan, the situation will be similar to past World Cup Qualifiers. Experienced or not, it is always a tricky task to play a Central American opponent on its home turf.
“The only similar situation we had (to a place and opponent like Guatemala) was during January camp against Panama,” said Klinsmann, referring to the USA’s 1-0 in Panama City. “For us, it is really important that we prepare the team in a way that they go their own pace, their own speed and that they demand everything of themselves in order to keep the bar as high as possible. If we are able to execute a very fast-paced game, a very determined one – and technically are on a very high level – then hopefully we can break them down.”
Klinsmann noted that Guatemala, a defensively astute team that likes to use the counterattack, will do anything to get a result. He said the Americans will need to “step it up” with clinical finishing, an offensive punch that has been lacking lately. “We’ve got to give Guatemala a real fight,” he added.
What it lacks in talent (Guatemala is, after all, 85th in the world in FIFA’s June rankings), the Central Americans make up tactically with physical play aimed at disrupting an opponents’ momentum. A player like Michael Bradley will need to avoid such a trap and instead try to outplay Guatemala with quick passes, the sort of approach Klinsmann has called for since taking over as head coach last year.
Guatemala manager Ever Hugo Almeida likes to use a 5-4-1 formation with former MLS star Carlos Ruiz up top. No surprise since the Uruguayan-born Almeida knows a lot about defenses since he was a former goalkeeper. He once played for his adopted country Paraguay and spent his time at the club level coaching and building teams with strong backlines.
One way to break down La Bicolor’s defense is to score as early as it possibly can. The USA needs to emulate Jamaica and initiate an attack and take the lead. Long-range efforts and set-pieces are one way to do that. Trying to go at it 1v1 or with short passes in the box will result in a lot of frustration. Once the Jamaicans had been able to score, the Guatemalans lost their shape and were forced to go offensive. Tactically speaking, Almeida switched to a 3-4-3 and its players no longer flooded the box. Jamaica won 2-1.
The most familiar name on the roster is Ruiz. The team captain and all-time leading scorer with 49 goals in 95 appearances boldly called on his squad to string together as many points possible versus Jamaica and the United States. The 32-year-old Ruiz, who plays for Mexican club Veracruz, told reporters ahead of the Jamaica match: "The main point is not to lose. We come (to Kingston) to win or try to get something. We will see if we can tie or win (in Jamaica). Then we play against United States at home and we will try to see if we can win that game.” A veteran of four past World Cup Qualifying cycles, the speedy Ruiz will give the US some worries. He has scored three goals in his last six international appearances.
Another storyline out of Guatemala involves the players who won’t be in uniform. The team began its quest for Brazil ’14 just weeks after its national federation suspended three players – team captain Gustavo Cabrera, Guillermo Ramirez and Yony Flores – after the trio were embroiled in allegations of match-fixing. Cabrera, a former Los Angeles Galaxy striker, and the others have officially been suspended because of "indiscipline.” Guatemalan officials have said that FIFA are probing four games, including a CONCACAF Champions League game contested in 2010 involving the trio, who all play for club side Municipal, and Santos Laguna of Mexico. The match ended with a 6-1 victory for Santos.
The Americans, however, need to focus on the lineup that takes the field. As Clint Dempsey put it, "Now it’s about getting the job done in Guatemala.” It is a realistic task.
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