U.S. looking to end Guatemala's World Cup dream
At first glance, the United States' World Cup qualifier on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic) against Guatemala appears to be a game in which finding motivation could be difficult. The Americans already booked their passage to next year's hexagonal and can afford to experiment without pressure. But if you dig beneath the surface, you'll find several reasons for the U.S. team to bring the requisite intensity needed to secure victory.
The primary incentive will be dousing Guatemala's faint hopes of progressing to the next round. Granted, Los Chapines need a miracle of epic proportions to advance. They currently sit in third place in the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football's Group 1, three points behind second-place Trinidad & Tobago. Accordingly, Guatemala needs not only to win Wednesday's contest but also to hit the lottery jackpot by having Cuba triumph on the road against T&T.
But even with those long odds, the U.S. will take special satisfaction in signing Guatemala's death certificate, as the Blue and White have been notoriously tough to beat during the Bob Bradley era. The teams have met three times in the past two years, and although the U.S. owns a 2-0-1 record, both wins were narrow one-goal victories.
Guatemala's aggressive style proved especially troublesome in August during the Americans' 1-0 win to begin the semifinal round of qualifying. And if they can eliminate the need to make a return trip to Guatemala City during the hex, then so much the better.
"It would be a good step for us to just put [Guatemala] away when we have the chance," U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. "We don't want them to come back and bite us in the butt in the next round, because obviously they'll be looking for some revenge.
"Whenever you have a chance to put out a good opponent in qualifying and give yourself perhaps an easier road to the World Cup finals, then you need to do that. That's very important and should be present in our minds come Wednesday night."
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Guatemala
Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colo.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
The U.S. also will look to improve on last month's performance against T&T, one in which the Soca Warriors handed the Yanks a 2-1 defeat, the Americans' first loss in this qualifying cycle. On that occasion, a young U.S. side played well in spurts but also left plenty of room for improvement, something Kljestan is intent on delivering against Guatemala.
"Obviously, as a team we want to win at home, especially in front of our home fans," Kljestan said. "Personally, I want to take a bigger role on the field than I did against Trinidad. I don't think I had a very good game [that night]. Up and down the field, I need to have a better game to help my team win."
But the U.S. will face a Guatemala side that will bear only a passing resemblance to the one that pushed the Yanks to the limit in Guatemala City. The Chapines' shocking 2-1 defeat to Cuba on Oct. 15 cost head coach Ramon Maradiaga his job, and new manager Benjamin Monterroso hasn't hesitated to ring in the changes. Mainstays such as Freddy Garcia and Carlos Ruiz were not named to Monterroso's initial 25-man roster that has been training this week in Guatemala. Mario Rodriguez, who gave the Americans fits in the team's previous encounter, has been sidelined for the past month after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Complicating matters further is the news that striker Juan Carlos Plata will not travel to the U.S., preferring to remain by his wife's side in the wake of a family tragedy.
Yet although some faces may have changed, others remain. Midfielder Fredy Thompson and attacker Pando Ramirez are players long familiar to the U.S. team, and that veteran presence is why Kljestan is anticipating the same in-your-face approach of previous matches.
"They've got a lot guys on that team who are battlers," Kljestan said. "They've got some guys on the wings who are pretty technical, pretty fast and good with the ball. They've got some good players with some good experience, and they'll be fighting for their lives, so we expect something similar to the first time we played them."
Change is in the air for the U.S. as well. At least seven new players will enter the lineup as compared with their previous outing. Although attacking players such as Kljestan, Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore will be keen to rebound from the T&T game, particular attention will focus on a relatively inexperienced back line. Only two of the six defenders named to Bradley's 20-man roster have more than 10 caps, and the most tested back-line member, Cory Gibbs, is in the process of making a comeback after spending much of the past two years injured.
The roster is composed mostly of domestic players; 15 of the 20 performers ply their trade in MLS. For some, such as Chicago's John Thorrington and Dallas' Kenny Cooper, the call-up is just reward for an outstanding season. Yet despite this accolade, some haven't quite removed the bitter taste of MLS playoff elimination from their mouths.
"It's tough for some guys to be here and watch the playoffs on TV like we did," Kljestan admitted. (Kljestan's Chivas USA team was eliminated by RSL in the Western Conference semifinals.) "For me, it stings a little, because we wanted to be [in the MLS Cup final] so badly. But it's good to end the season on a high note as well, playing for your national team."
Eliminating Guatemala should ease that pain even more.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.