(Tuesday, August 26, 2008) -- The United States men won their opening CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal-round match defeating Guatemala 1-0 at Guatemala City's Estadio Mateo Flores. This was no small feat. The U.S. had not won a match at this venue in the past 20 years and the current Guatemala side thinks it has what it takes to get all the way to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The crowd was unbelievable. It was the largest throng to jam its way into Mateo Flores in many, many years and it screamed itself hoarse for the full 90 minutes.
When the U.S. team arrived at the stadium about 90 minutes ahead of kickoff, part of a high security motorcade, it ran a gauntlet of thousands and thousands of Guatemalan fans who let their displeasure be known by displaying their middle fingers. More than a few beers were thrown at the U.S. bus, a waste of good beer. However, despite the throng outside, when the Americans walked into the stadium, virtually every seat was already taken, meaning many fans from outside came without tickets to back their team.
Guatemala played pretty well, especially in the early part of the second half. When the Chapines limit the theatrics, something they find hard to do, they can play some interesting soccer. But in reality, while they are improving and while the have a couple of very nice players, they are far from a world-class team -- and probably still a ways from being among the best in the region.
The U.S., despite the difficulties of qualifying matches on the road in the confederation of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, should have handled the Guatemalans with ease. They didn't. Truth be told, the Americans did not play well.
There were some good performances - by the defense and especially by goalkeeper Tim Howard. But this U.S. squad is still a long way from ready to compete on a level they will need to both to first get to South Africa, and once there to make a decent showing in 2010..
The American offense remains largely AWOL. As it has for most of this year, the U.S. had to score off a dead-ball situation -- a corner kick - to beat Guatemala. The few chances coming from the run of play were squandered.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley needs to find a quality forward. Whether this means a Kenny Cooper, a match-fit and un-retired Brian McBride, an improved Eddie Johnson or a more mature Jozy Altidore, a target striker needs to be found. Neither Brian Ching nor Clint Dempsey are the answer.
A way has to be found to get Landon Donovan more involved in the offense over the full 90 minutes of a match. He continues to have the tendency to drift out wide and to disappear for long periods. The center of the midfield can be counted on to play solid defense, which is good, but its contribution to the attack is not sufficient. Again, maybe some new players will have to step forward.
Two players on the squad have generated a lot of negative fan comment. Heath Pearce on the left side of defense continues to have his share of problems, but against Guatemala he had the toughest assignment on the field in matching up against blazing right winger Mario Rodriguez. All in all, Pearce more than held his own.
One must remember that Pearce, after a college career at University of Portland, is now only in his third season as a professional. He is improving by leaps and bounds, and should be well settled into the U.S. backline long before South Africa.
If there was any question why veteran defender Frankie Hejduk was chosen for the Guatemala qualifier, those questions were fully answered. He came on in the final 20 minutes, revitalized a tiring American defense and was as instrumental as any U.S. player in killing off the game.
The result in Guatemala City was good in several ways. It got the U.S. off to a flying start with a road victory in what should be its most difficult match of the semifinal round. The American should be able to coast through the remainder of the round and if they can amass enough points quickly, maybe the final games in the round can be used to look at some more players. The Guatemala match was also valuable from the standpoint it sent a clear message to the team that it needs to play a lot better if it plans to advance to South Africa 2010.
In talking with many of the players after the match, that message was clearly received.
U.S. following was small, but enthusiastic
Almost lost last night among the throng of Guatemala fans wearing white shirts were a few dozen Americans who made the long trip to, despite the intimidation, wear red, white and blue, and chant "USA, USA" throughout the match.
The home crowd, despite its fervor and the loss, was generally well-mannered and peaceful, but the revved-up security forces were taking no chances with the safety of the small contingent of U.S. fans. The Americans were kept in the stadium, under guard, while the Guatemalan fans poured out. Then they were taken to the highly secure area where the U.S. team bus was. When authorities raised concern about their leaving the area by public street, the U.S. Soccer Federation sent a team van back to drop them at various hotels.
The spirit of the mostly young Americans was admirable and their comments indicated they had a great time.
MLS needs more patience
One thing that CONCACAF qualifying is showing is that Major League Soccer needs to display more patience with young foreign players brought into the league. Time after time, if these imports don't fit in and produce from day one, they are dropped quickly.
Rodriguez, who is emerging as one of his country's three best players and obviously has a bright future, played 19 games for the Columbus Crew in 2005. After scoring just one goal, he was released. Today, he would be a dominant player for the Crew.
Another such case is El Salvador midfielder Eliseo Quintanilla, who has emerged as his country's best player. He had an injury-interrupted stay with D.C. United from 2002-2005 and was released despite flashes of brilliance. United surely could use him today.