by Graham Parker
So having defeated the might of Antigua and Barbuda 3-1 in Florida on Friday night, the USMNT travel to Guatemala for the second game of their World Cup Qualifying campaign. Upon arrival they will
be greeted with garlands of flowers likely find themselves on the receiving end of a pretty hostile welcome on and off the pitch. This one might be lively…
The hosts are coming into the game on the back of a defeat to Jamaica in their opening game, but with two games against Antigua up next, that may not necessarily translate into urgency to go for the win tonight – though if history is any guide they will definitely try to create a hostile environment for the US. Los Chapines are expected to play a 4-4-2 that resets to a defensive 4-5-1 off the ball, and force the US to try to break them down – prompting a suggestion that Klinsmann may drop Maurice Edu in midfield, ask Michael Bradley to stay deep and bring in another striker alongside Herculez Gomez. The problem with this approach (and why we won’t see it from the start tonight) is not so much the additional vulnerability on the counter, as the evidence during the recent run of US games that 4-4-2 just isn’t working for them. The most notable example of its failure came just last weekend, in a rather flat-footed tie against Canada (cue outraged e-mails on the nuances of 4-4-1-1 and Dempsey in the withdrawn role – and rather fewer e-mails on how brilliantly that worked out…).
One definite bright spot has been the emergence of Herculez Gomez as a credible starting striker, while there is optimism for the future with the fact that Terrence Boyd, who just signed for Rapid Vienna, is also now cap-tied to the US through his cameo sub appearance vs Antigua (though he’s not expected to suit up tonight). The problems remain in finding the most fluid formation to balance the midfield personnel in, while the left back crisis has been deepened by problem injuries during the run of 5 games that have made up Klinsmann’s “mini-tournament” for this national team camp. Fabian Johnson faces a struggle to be fit in time for tonight, and if he can’t last the evening Bocanegra may have to move left and set up a mini-shiffle of center backs that Klinsmann could do without.
It might get pixelated:
We mentioned this one might get lively – it may also be pixel-y – the TV rights to this game are owned by FEDEFUT, the governing body of the sport in Guatemala, and they have chosen not to license the content to any US television network, but instead have sold the rights to a PPV company who are charging an eye-watering $29.95 for the privilege of watching what happens, on demand or streaming. Fortunately for those of you not able or willing to shell out that amount, or close enough/bothered enough to get to a soccer-friendly bar to watch it, the Guardian are big fans of conspicuous consumption and have no problem making 6 Lincolns (AKA “half a Pacquiao”) rain for the event of the season. Actually, technically I’ve laid them out, as the Guardian is “a bit short right now, but good for it, absolutely Graham – just order it and we’ll sort something out…”
So having slapped down the readies, swaggered into my prime field-side seat, and shooed the cat occupying it, what more can I tell you about tonight’s game?
While I figure that out, why not watch the highlights of Friday’s game between USA and Antigua?
Well, as with any time the USA travel for a Central American fixture, it’s one of those games that on paper they’re expected to win, but which in practice is the sort of game people have in mind when they talk about the “grind” of qualifying.
That “grind” tends to start the minute the team get off the plane. Central American trips by the USMNT tend to be fraught affairs. Previous trips to the region have resulted in a Honduran newspaper printing the floor plan of the US team hotel for the benefit of “fans”, a band assembling in the lobby of another hotel, and a previous trip to Guatemala City itself was marked by a local radio station hosting a “promotion”, complete with loudspeakers, outside yet another hotel window. These trips have also presumably resulted in around 22 terrible Yelp reviews attached to the hotels in question, shortly thereafter.
And when the US reaches the pitch it’s not likely to get much friendlier. The last time these two sides played here in a World Cup Qualifier, in 2008, there were two red cards, seven yellows, and an array of airborne objects that ranged from US players to batteries being thrown at them. The consensus is that the US are likely to be goaded tonight and while Jamaica may be the tougher footballing side they face in this phase of qualifying, this tie may be the sternest test of character.
Klinsmann is fairly phlegmatic at the prospect of what awaits:
“It’s hostile in Tehran in front of 110,000, it’s hostile in Istanbul with 60,000 — actually you can’t even see the field before the game for 10 minutes for all the smoke. It’s normal; this is what soccer brings to the table. I think it’s just awesome. We are here because we want three points, and we have to take it seriously.