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Champion's Cup

View from Guatemala

Despite respect for U.S., Guatemalans expect to win berth in Olympics.

By Morgan Perkins
Special to SoccerTimes

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (Thursday, April 27, 2000) -- American soccer fans wait for tomorrow’s Olympic qualifying match secure in the knowledge that if the United States plays its game, the tickets to Sydney are as good as booked.

But in Guatemala, press and fans have a far, far different outlook on the game. Can Guatemala really win on Friday and advance to the Summer Games in Septmeber? And what are the keys to la victoria chapin?

This column will answer these questions from the Guatemalan perspective, based on news accounts from Prensa Libre and Siglo Ventiuno, as well as interviews with sportswriters from these, Guatemala City's two leading newspapers.

The first thing one would note in reading the sports page in this morning's Guatemala City papers would be a very real respect for this U.S. team. In the words of David Pocon, sportswriter for the Prensa Libre, the recent development of soccer in the United States has put the national team "in the hierarchy of CONCACAF at the level of Mexico, in no way inferior." U.S. conditioning, speed and strength are huge obstacles for any team to overcome.

But Guatemalans feel their moment has come. The keys to a Guatemalan win, they believe, will be confidence, teamwork and superior technical ability. Three months ago Francisco (Paco) Melgar took over as coach of the under-23 national team. Since his arrival that team is undefeated.

Following a hard fought win over Panama, and a tie against powerhouse Mexico, Melgar's squad is flying high. Key players such as central midfielder Freddy Garcia and forward Raul Ruiz are giving all that has been expected of them and others such as Guillermo Ramírez (midfielder) and Carlos Quiñonez (forward) have improved their games considerably under the pressure of these Olympic qualifiers.

As far as technical ability goes, Central Americans in general are quick to dismiss the U.S. as overly reliant on speed, power and individual play. The feeling among coaches and the press alike is that if one can shut down open space in your defensive third and put the U.S. players' backs to the goal, their offense is thwarted.

Guatemala is set to lean back, slow the pace of the game, and clog the lanes. Look for defensive midfielder Gustavo Cabrera, Guatemala's answer to D.C. United’s Richie Williams, to be the key to slowing Ben Olsen and company. Once forced into a lateral game, the U.S. will cough up the ball.

But reports are that Paco Melgar considers this the most dangerous point of play for Guatemala. If the Chapines cannot get the ball across midfield cleanly things could get ugly quick. Melgar sees the biggest threat from the U.S. coming off balls stolen in midfield, allowing for a quick counterattack while Guatemala is in transition.

Even if this strategy works, Melgar is reportedly worried about Conor Casey, the one U.S. forward who has shown an ability to work with his back to the goal. To make matters worse, Casey presents a physical mismatch for any of the Guatemalan defenders. Another area of concern may be the aerial game, where Guatemala would find it almost impossible to match up with the American front line.

Once across midfield, the pressure will be on Ruiz (two goals versus Panama) and Carlos Quiñonez. According to sources at Siglo Ventiuno, Ruiz, injured Sunday against Mexico, is sure to play. (In his absence Guatemala would turn to youngster Dwight Pezarossi, known as a big game player). But whoever is getting served up front, there is a great deal of confidence that speed and the superior ballhandling of Guatemalan forwards will create chances on goal.

(Note: Melgar is reported to have breathed a big sigh of relief when Brian Dunseth got himself ejected in Tuesday's game and suspended for tomorrow, fearing that the U.S. captain's size and speed might prove too much for his forwards.)

Key players in the Guatemalan game plan will be Freddy Garcia, quarterback not only for this team, but also for the full national side and four-time Guatemalan champion Comunicaciones of Guatemala City, and Guillermo Rivera.

Garcia will be charged with bringing the ball up through midfield. Rivera will be his outlet when in trouble. Both are good ballhandlers, and both are quite small. For Garcia especially, the slightest contact tends to send him bouncing around like a leaf on a windy November day. Even with his penchant for diving, the Guatemalan team looks to Garcia (one goal versus Mexico) as the man to make the big play when the game gets static. Three weeks ago in a World Cup qualifier against El Salvador, Garcia nearly did pull off a couple of spectacular goals, playing out of character and running through fouls. Generally speaking, as goes Garcia, so goes Guatemala.

Say what you will about Guatemala's Sunday draw with Mexico, it has infused this team with a heady confidence that will only grow as long as they keep the United States off the scoreboard. And if it can blunt the U.S. attack, Guatemala may just find a way to keep its three month-run going for a couple more days.

Special thanks to David Pocon of the Prensa Libre as well as Juan Jose Corado (sports editor) and Felix Arturo Mencos of Siglo Ventiuno.

Morgan Perkins, originally from Maryland (and Honduras), currently resides in Guatemala City. He can be e-mailed at morganinguate@hotmail.com.

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