USMNT BOOKS TICKET TO THE HEX
The United States national team booked their place in CONCACAF's final round of World Cup qualifying with a convincing win over Guatemala on Tuesday night in Kansas City.
Just four days after head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team mustered a difficult win over Antigua and Barbuda, they found themselves within touching distance of the next round. The only thing standing in their way was first place Guatemala.
The game was played in perfect conditions; 78 degrees with wind rippling through the hundreds of US flags on display in LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. The US entered the game needing only a draw to reserve their place in the next round, with a win guaranteeing the top spot.
Klinsmann chose to go with a nearly unchanged roster, deciding only to pull Clarence Goodson in favor of Michael Parkhust. The Bronby captain had a poor performance against Antigua and Barbuda, as his slip near the goal allowed them to score their only goal.
In just the 5th minute, a seemingly harmless ball over the top from Guatemala caught Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron sleeping. The American defenders were slow to react, allowing Carlos Ruiz to move in alone against Tim Howard. The American goalkeeper was indecisive coming off his line, allowing Ruiz the time to dribble to the left goalpost and past Howard for an easy tap to give Guatemala the early lead.
"We were frustrated," said US captain Bocanegra, regarding the goal. "We were fairly spread out and we gave the ball away. They had one pass. They weren't creating much other than hitting you and the long ball with a flick on. We knew that was going to come, but we weren't going to put our heads down.
"We were never going to give up," he added. "No one put their head downs, we knew we were going to get goals against these goals."
Then, five minutes later, the Americans were right back in the mix as Herculez Gomez kept the US alive. Guatemala tried to force a goal kick, but the American striker fought to earn a corner kick.
Midfielder Graham Zusi, playing in front of his Sporting Kansas City home crowd, stepped up to take the corner kick and found striker Clint Dempsey. The Texan rose above the defense to head the ball down across the goal. Running in unmarked, Bocanegra slammed Dempsey's header into the net to atone for his earlier error.
"We did not need to take that first goal," Klinsmann admitted. "It was not necessary. The good thing was that they responded right away and scored immediately, which calmed things down."
Former Kansas City striker Eddie Johnson was the hero in Antigua and Barbuda, and once again made a crucial play. Having started originally on the left flank, the Seattle Sounders man floated his way out to the right, switching sides with Zusi.
Seemingly out of nothing, right back Steve Cherundolo found Johnson alone on the right side. With no hesitation Johnson streaked into the box and played a dangerous ball right across Guatemala 'keeper Ricardo Jerez Jr.'s six-yard box. Gomez was unable to get anything on it at the near post, but Dempsey was at the back post to tuck away his shot and give the US the 2-1 lead, sending the pro-American crowd into euphoria.
"I thought Eddie did a good job beating his man and getting a good ball in and I was able to finish it off," said Dempsey, regarding Johnson's assist.
Klinsmann was pleased with the effort that Dempsey and Johnson gave, noting their off-field connection as impactful on the field.
"I've heard they've known each other a long time-longer than me," Klinsmann said. "They have good chemistry and they get along. On the field you want to see guys that are there for each other; the guy that comes over if you make a mistake to clap you on the shoulder to say, 'Let's keep going.'
"Eddie was a big plus for us to have and his qualities work well for our group," Klinsmann continued. "I told him to come and give us everything he had and to adjust to what we were doing, and that he was going to be fine. He felt comfortable and was one of the ones for us in Antigua and again here. He gives us another option to play with."
The US continued to press with Johnson and Zusi providing multiple attacking options. Gomez also contributed to the attack by keeping possession and playing the ball back to the midfielders. The unrelenting US control incited the Guatemala players, who began to feel the pressure of elimination and began to play more aggressively.
That aggression came to a forefront when the ever-controversial Ruiz attempted to get Cameron sent off by going down on the edge of the 18-yard box after throwing his body into the center back. Cameron offered a hand to the club-less Ruiz to no avail. Moments later Bocanegra and Ruiz exchanged heated words with an occasional nudge of the head.
However, the US maintained their dominance and their positive play paid off with just nine minutes to play in the half when Zusi pressed on the attack. The SKC man played a pass to Michael Bradley but the AS Roma stalwart let the ball to ride to Gomez, who quickly passed the ball back to Bradley, who had slotted past the Guatemalan defense.
The midfielder took his time to allow Jerez Jr. to advance off his line before clipping a ball over the onrushing keeper toward the back post, where the ball found Dempsey, who bagged his second of the evening.
"It felt good, even though we got off to a slow start" Dempsey said. "We conceded a goal early against the run of play. We got a set piece and I was able to get a head to it. I tried to put it towards goal but [Bocanegra] was at the right place at the right time and finished it off. Michael did another good job chipping the keeper and I was in a situation where I didn't know if it was going to roll in so I decided to take it because I didn't know if it was going to hit the post or not.
"It's always good to get goals to build your confidence and to get points, and to get the win," Dempsey added. "We're excited to get to the next round but we know that we need to step up our game and be better away from home. We have to make sure we don't let this opportunity go by and that we start out of the gates flying. We want to put ourselves in a situation to qualify for the World Cup and not wait until the last game, where you need certain results to go your way. That's a position you don't need to be in."
Joining the United States in the final hexagonal group will be Jamaica, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. Following the game, Dempsey did not seem to care as to who the Americans would face next year knowing that any team will be difficult with a berth in the World Cup on the line.
"It doesn't matter who's in your group or who you're paired with, it's going to be a difficult task," Dempsey pointed out. "I don't think a lot of people know how hard it is to qualify in CONCACAF. There's a lot of good teams and it's difficult to play away from home. We are still a work in progress but we have the talent, and when we're playing on a good pitch we're able to play with a good style."
The US national team will return to action on November 14, when they travel to Russia for a friendly.