U.S. forwards need to step up against Guatemala

August 18, 2008
GalarcepBy Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPNsoccernet

Anyone thinking that winning a World Cup qualifier in Guatemala should be easy for the U.S. national team doesn't know his history.

GettyImages / Chung Sung-JungGuatemala's Mario Rodriguez will provide a threat down the left flank.

The Americans have made four trips to Central America for qualifiers against Guatemala (one of which was played in El Salvador), have made eight total trips to Guatemala for games and have come back with exactly one victory. That lone win was in a friendly in 1988, with none other than Jeff Agoos scoring the game winner in the 1-0 triumph.

That history aside, the United States still heads into Wednesday night's match (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET) heavily favored to advance out of a qualifying group that includes Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba. The first match of the group stage will go a long way toward setting the tone for a nucleus of American players who now can be called veterans.

The Americans will be wary not to take a tumble out of the starting blocks as they did in 2004, when they opened the first group stage of CONCACAF qualifying with a draw against Jamaica in Kingston. It took a Brian Ching header late in the match to salvage the tie in a matchup the Americans were expected to dominate.

So, what can the United States expect from Guatemala? The Chapines are likely to bunker down in a 4-5-1 formation, looking to limit the space for American midfielders to operate while using their wingers to test U.S. fullbacks and provide service for star striker Carlos Ruiz.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Guatemala
Guatemala City, Guatemala
10 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The key to Guatemala's attack won't be Ruiz as much as it will be former Columbus Crew right winger Mario Rodriguez, whose speedy runs down the flank and slippery moves will be a handful for American left back Heath Pearce and whichever left winger starts between DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Lewis. If Beasley is fit enough after recovering from a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for a month, he has more than enough speed to stifle Rodriguez and severely limit the number of chances Guatemala will create.

Then there is the matter of scoring goals, something the Americans have done just once in three World Cup qualifiers in Guatemala. That track record seems awful but isn't as relevant as you might think. The most recent of those qualifiers came on Sept. 7, 2005, in a Hexagonal matchup that took place after the Americans already had secured their berth in the 2006 World Cup. The U.S. lineup that day in Guatemala City included Greg Vanney, Santino Quaranta, Jeff Cunningham and Chad Marshall. The draw before that came in 2000, with only Eddie Lewis and Frankie Hejduk still around.

The more pertinent track record is the U.S. team's recent struggles to score. Take away an 8-0 drubbing of Barbados in the first leg of a home-and-home World Cup qualifying series, and the Americans have managed just one goal in their previous four matches. A trio of high-caliber friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina provided tough tests to be sure, but the American team's inability to find the net in any of the three matches has to be a cause for concern.

Consider Bob Bradley's options at forward. If he chooses to deploy Landon Donovan in a wing midfield role, the remaining three forwards are Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching. Dempsey struggled against the elite teams -- in part because of fatigue following a long, difficult season in England -- but he rebounded to score a brace against Barbados in the blowout. Ching also scored two in the rout while Johnson added one.

Can any of them break through against a Guatemala defense that limited the Americans to one goal in two meetings in 2007? If they don't, not only will the U.S. midfield struggle to generate chances against Guatemala's 4-5-1, the demands for FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper to get a call-up will continue to grow. With Cooper knocking on the door as he keeps scoring goals in MLS, and Jozy Altidore a definite contender for playing time once his injured ankle fully heals and he settles in at Villarreal, Ching and Johnson have to know their national team chances will start to run out if they don't begin to produce.

Offensive struggles aside, the Americans will take the field in Guatemala City with an experienced lineup that is likely to include, at most, three players (Michael Bradley, Heath Pearce and possibly Maurice Edu) who have never played in a road World Cup qualifier. Considering the challenges they endured this summer, against the likes of England and Spain on the road, the entire American squad will come into Wednesday night's match battle tested and eager to deliver the first World Cup qualifying win in Guatemala in U.S. soccer history.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.