Ah, yes, the sweet, painful slog that is CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, there you are. Oh, how I’d missed you. First, Antigua & Barbuda make themselves more of a nuisance than hoped for, and then Guatemala does the same. Last night’s 1-1 tie in Guatemala City is a worthy away point for the U.S. against a team much superior to Antigua & Barbuda, so sour grapes are not called for, but all the same, I miss watching the U.S. play Scotland.
First half – I’ve got bruises just from watching it
For the first 37 minutes, neither side offered much. Guatemala’s game plan seemed to be to foul the U.S. players when on defense, and get fouled when on offense, though everyone’s favorite former Union player and Guatemalan captain, Carlos Ruiz, twice earned saves from Tim Howard. But which is worse, a negative strategy, or that it works? The U.S. had just as few chances as Guatemala did, aside from a series of free kicks and corners that showed Guatemala’s keeper had a case of flappy-hands, but which produced no end product. On 28 minutes, Michael Bradley attempted to recreate his volleyed goal against Scotland, but this time his attempt was saved, and that was about it, until minute 38.
Out of nothing, the Guatemalan right-winger (I’m not sure who–the stream I watched was very fuzzy. I mean, seriously, the only way to watch this game is either a 30-dollar PPV, or illegal streams?) was put through behind Fabian Johnson (who made a welcome, if up-and-down, return to the starting lineup), and had a one-on-one chance against Tim Howard, who parried the winger’s fierce drive.
It would not be the last time Howard’s talents as a shot-stopper were required on the night. The rebound was quickly gathered by the U.S. and, after nearly giving the ball back to the Guatemalans, sent up the left wing, where Johnson took the ball central and fed Clint Dempsey. Dempsey took two touches, sending two Guatemalan defenders to the floor, then calmly stroked the ball back across goal and into the net. 1-0 to the U.S.
Ruiz had a chance to equalize late in the half, but dragged his shot wide.
Second half – A little more action, but less satisfaction.
The character of the second half was similar to the first, but with more chances. Guatemala used all its substitutes at once, and while an odd choice, it would turn out to be the right one. Substitute Marco Pappa, of MLS’s Chicago Fire, was dangerous all half long, earning free kicks, putting shots on target, and eventually scoring the tying goal from a beauty of a free kick in the 83rd minute.
That Guatemala were even in a position to tie, however, is ridiculous. The ref bungled two calls that shoulda-coulda-woulda led to U.S. goals. In the first incident, Jozy Altidore, on as a 64th-minute sub, was taken down in the box by a tackle that got a lot of man before the ball, and looked in real-time (via fuzzy internet stream, but hey, commentator Shaka Hislop agreed with me!) like a penalty. No replays were shown, so it’s hard to know for sure. The second incident was far worse. Altidore again was involved, this time putting the ball in the back of the net after being fed by Dempsey at the top of the eighteen-yard box, but the play was called back for a foul on Dempsey. Had the ref waited even a second longer to allow for advantage, the U.S. goes up two goals to none. Instead, just a few minutes later, Pappa leveled the scores.
The U.S. upped the tempo after conceding, generating several chances—including what would surely have been a goal—with Michael Bradley sending a tantalizing cutback across the six-yard box, only to see that Altidore had stopped his run.
In the end, it was too little, too late, and it begs the question–where was this extra gear the rest of the night?
The U.S. team is a different animal under Juergen Klinsmann. In the past, this game might have played out in a much more subdued way, with the U.S. hunkering down, especially after the goal. Klinsmann teams don’t hunker down, though, at least not against inferior teams, even away from home. What that created was an open game, but with little rhythm, as Guatemala didn’t have the necessary talent to put sustained attacking pressure on the U.S., and the U.S. couldn’t unlock the Guatemalans’ defense with regularity.
Some final thoughts:
- It’s nice to have Tim Howard. Without him, the game could have been much worse than a disappointing draw. Had he not saved that attempt in the first half described above, and several other point-blank attempts (or if Carlos Ruiz could shoot from inside eight yards), the U.S. might very well have lost. It’s a high-risk/high-reward strategy to play so openly, and it requires a safe pair of hands in goal to succeed. Lucky for us, we’ve got Howard.
- Jozy Altidore might have been trying hard, but he could have fooled me. Yes, he scored, even if it didn’t count, but watching him fail to attack a tantalizing cross from Landon Donovan, then stop his run and thus miss a surefire goal from the Bradley cutback—let’s just say the difference in effort level between him and Herculez Gomez was stark.
- Speaking of Donovan, did he play? He was passive and largely anonymous, and it’s in games like these, where nothing’s coming together, that your best players have to take over and make something happen. Dempsey scored, at least, but neither he nor Donovan did enough.
This is what CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying is like. It’s scratching and clawing and fighting, and it’s not pretty. With 4 points, the U.S. currently tops its group, but has to do better. Look for a more complete wrap-up of these past five games in the next few days.