GUATEMALA CITY, Gutatemala (Wednesday, August 20, 2008) -- The United States men were generally considered a more talented team, but it was grit and determination that carried the Americans to a 1-0 triumph over Guatemala in their opening match of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal round.
It was the first time the U.S. won in Guatemala after draws in the first four meetings.
The atmosphere tonight in Guatemala City's Estadio Mateo Flores was simply electric. With the attendance listed at 25,000, one long-time observer of Guatemalan soccer called it the largest and noisiest crown to watch Guatemala play in at least a decade.
Neither team played particularly well in this ugly affair. On balance, Guatemala probably was the slightly better team. especially in the early part of the second half when it created chances, but couldn't convert. The U.S. created far fewer opportunities, but was able to take a lead when defender Carlos Bocanegra put away a header of midfielder DaMarcus Beasley's left-side corner kick. Striker Brian Ching and midfielder Michael Bradley cleared space for Bocanegra by shielding defenders and he nodded the winner past goalkeeper Ricardo Trigueno in the 69th minute.
"It was a hard-fought game and for us, and a hard-fought three points (in the standings)," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "For us to have won is more based on determination and sometimes it necessary to win games that way."
Referee Enrico Wijngaarde of Surinam certainly had his hands full. Guatemalan players were diving all over the field at the slightest contact. As the game wore on, it became more and more physical and Wijngaarde ended up calling 40 fouls, 23 on Guatemala, and ejecting one player from each side.
U.S. defender Steve Cheundolo was sent off with his second yellow card on a silly foul in the 60th minute. Just three minutes later, Guatemala midfielder Gustavo Carbrera went flying into U.S. midfielder Eddie Lewis with a head-to-head blow which earned Cabrera a red card. Lewis lay stunned, gushing blood from his head and causing him to leave the game for Beasley.
Lewis, who received five stitches above his right eye, didn't recall much about the collision. "I remember I got to the ball first and got my head on it, and then I don't remember much for awhile," he said.
Guatemala began the second half moving the ball around, creating all kinds of openings, but could not capitalize. After the U.S. goal, Guatemala lost some of its momentum and the Americans closed out the match with some sterling defensive play.
The one surprise in the U.S. lineup was Lewis starting on the left side of midfield in place of Beasley, who is not fully fit after a long injury layoff. Instead of this giving the U.S. a more defensive look, the Americans pushed forward from the opening kickoff and kept Guatemala on its heels for much of the first half.
Guatemala manager Ramon Mardiaga countered with the 4-5-1 formation he prefers with only Carlos Ruiz on top, three central midfielders and two on the wings, and four across the back. With a lot of speed on the wings, the Guatemalan attack often went down the flanks, especially on its right side where Mario Rodriguez used his blazing speed to good advantage.
The U.S. made one mistake in the first 45 minutes allowing Jose Contreras to run laterally across the middle before triggering a 20-yard rocket that American goalkeeper Tim Howard turned away with a brilliant reaction save.
In that first half, Ching and forward Clint Dempsey failed to connect on good chances. .
As often is the case when Guatemala plays, Ruiz, the diminutive striker, was controversial with his diving and dirty play. Late tonight, after Howard went down to control a ball, Ruiz kicked him in the head without drawing a foul. After receiving treatment, Howard was able to continue and Ruiz came up to offer his hand which Howard swatted away, earning him a yellow card.
Ruiz "punches you and kicks you, and will head-butt you if he has the chance and then will come up to apologize," Howard said. "I knew him when I played in (Major League Soccer). He is just a dirty player."
So tonight, the U.S. play was not particularly pretty, but the result was. This would appear to be its toughest match in the semifinal round and the Americans came away with the victory.
"Qualification matches away from home are difficult," Bradley told a hostile press conference made up mostly of angry Guatemalan reporters. "You have to expect them to be tough. So to experience it, and to win in this way, required just a pure determined effort."
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 8: Made several game-saving stops in a brilliant and gritty performance. Several times, he kept the U.S. in the game while benefiting from some dreadful Guatemalan finishing.
Defender Heath Pearce - 5.5: Bore the brunt of the Guatemalan attack down his side and was locked in battle all night with Rodriguez, who has speed and technical ability. He needed help at times, but did hold his own.
Defender Steve Cherundolo - 5.5: A stupid and obvious foul led to his dismissal and marred an otherwise strong performance
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 6.5: Was a tower of strength down the stretch, winning air ball after air ball in the last 15 minutes.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 6: Was very active in the back and had a solid game. Made several key defensive stops.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni - 5.5: An up-and-down performance. At times was everywhere, making defensive plays, but had trouble with the pace at times and seemed worn down by the time he was removed.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 5.5: Very good at times, much less so other times. Still seems to struggle with consistency
Midfielder Landon Donovan - 5: Stayed wide for much of the night and had little impact. Still, over the final 20 minutes made, he several key defensive stops.
Midfielder Eddie Lewis - 5.5: Was one of the most active U.S. players, especially in the first half. However, by pushing far forward was not able to help contain Rodriguez on a number of occasions.
Forward Clint Dempsey - 5: Worked hard, but had little impact after the first 15 minutes.
Forward Brian Ching - 5: Could not capitalize on the few chances he was able to create.
Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (65th minute for Lewis) 6.5: For a player far from fit, did wonderfully helping to slow down the Guatemalan attack and delivered a great corner kick for the goal.
Defender Frankie Hejduk (65th minute for Dempsey) - 6.5: The veteran was great over the final 20 minutes, making several key defensive plays.
Midfielder Maurice Edu (78th minute for Mastroeni) - 5.5: Very good defensively and even managed to get off a dangerous shot.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Tim Howard.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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