A win puts the United States in great shape one-third of the way through semifinal round qualifying en route to Brazil 2014. A U.S. loss is hardly crushing since the Americans took care of business at home last week, but it will turn up the pressure slightly in qualifiers ahead.
Plus, since there’s still a sports-loving set out there that doesn’t understand the thorny side of CONCACAF qualifiers in Central American hot zones, nor the wolverine-like fight in these smaller nations, especially when they feel the emotional burden of playing for something larger than themselves, the Jurgen Klinsmann critics will feast on anything less than a solid Guatemalan thumping by the U.S. men.
Here’s what’s on my mind ahead of this one inside a Nacional Mateo Flores Stadium that promises to be insane with passion and nervous energy:
- Guatemala is desperate. Already.
That’s because they’ve lost already. True, it was on the road, at Jamaica. So it can’t be totally unexpected, although this is hardly Jamaica’s best version.
The problem is that Guatemalan fans, players, coaches and media all see the reality of the situation. A win Friday could have created some wiggle room, at least. Now, a loss likely leaves Guatemala way behind the qualifying 8 ball, stuck with zero points after two matches, with a scary stretch of ground to make up between the United States and Jamaica. It would pour a huge pot of hot soup pressure all over Los Chapines at the worst time, with about three months to hear about it until the next round of matches in early September.
They’ll take a point, but what they really, desperately crave is three of them.
- What’s going on with the U.S. back line?
It’s really all about Fabian Johnson, and where the left fullback up-and-comer stands in his bid for fitness.
If Johnson can play (and be effective), then U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann has just one choice, and not even a great big one: who to partner with captain Carlos Bocanegra. (Bocanegra, by the way, got the goal last time these two met in Guatemala City in World Cup qualifying, a 1-0 U.S. win in 2008.)
If Johnson can’t go, Klinsmann has three important decisions, starting with where to play Bocanegra. The U.S. veteran defender moved over to left back on Friday following Jose Torres’ injury, and that turned into a quick fiasco. Oguchi Onyewu took Bocanegra’s center back spot – and didn’t take long to remind everyone that he’s a mistake waiting to happen these days.
Clarence Goodson will surely be in tonight’s match; no matter how many times people want to marginalize him in the U.S. center back conversation, Goodson always acquits himself well when provided opportunities. The Brøndby IF captain just hasn’t had a stinker in the U.S. shirt yet – while Onyewu’s matches of woe are getting harder to keep track of.
Here’s the problem: if Bocanegra is forced to play out wide, does Goodson partner centrally with Geoff Cameron, who has limited international experience, and who would be playing his initial World Cup qualifier? That’s a fine “how do you do”, some way to get your first qualifier test, down in the roiling cauldron of Guatemala City.
If Johnson can play, Klinsmann shouldn’t really have a hard time at all: It’s Bocanegra and Goodson in the middle. (And trusty Steve Cherundolo on the right, as always.)
- The midfield mix; still tinkering
In the four games so far in this late-spring series, Michael Bradley (pictured above right) has played closer to the forwards at times, but he’s always been the designated holding man, tucked in behind Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu at times.
For this one, I agree with the sharpies over at The Shinguardian, who reckon in their game preview that Edu will sit deeper, tasked with doggedly holding the ground in front of the back line. From the Shinguardian preview:
Edu’s speed of defending will come in to play here and in this role he’ll be used just like Ricardo Clark was used against teams like Costa Rica and Honduras for Bob Bradley. Seal off the counter and bide time until his teammates get back behind the ball.
Edu will handle the tackling and tracking; It’s all about him being smart in ball handling. He’s got to distribute with utmost simplicity and clarity. No chances in this one can be accepted from the Rangers man.
I asked Klinsmann about this one in Tampa. He said essentially that these three are his go-to guys in midfield now, and that he has faith in them whichever way he tilts the roles.
Jermaine Jones must keep his head.
I went over that one here. Long story short, the Guatemalans know he’s the guy to bait. So he can’t take it. That bait, that is.
I keep wondering who starts at forward
Well, no more. Herculez Gomez keeps starting. And keeps scoring. And keeps drawing effusive praise from his boss, Herr Klinsmann, for relishing all the dirty work that comes in the job description.
I wanted to see a little more creative combining from Gomez on Friday against Antigua and Barbuda, a match that needed a little more dynamic presence from everyone along the U.S. front line. But Tuesday’s match is a Central American blue collar special, and there’s nothing “dynamic” about it. These are about guts, about having the stomach for the fight, about not being a bit undone by the roar and by the spittle and the eye gouges and anything else. It’s about effort and staying stubbornly on mission, about getting the job done.
Gomez looks up for it.
More, including lots of facts and figures, is here on the match from U.S. Soccer.