Guatemala breathed new life into its bid for the 2018 World Cup on Friday night, defeating the United States 2-0 behind early goals from Rafael Morales and team captain Carlos Ruiz at the Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City.
The United States dominated the ball with 63 percent of the possession and managed five shots on goal to Guatemala's three, per ESPN FC, but were ultimately unable to best Guatemalan goalkeeper Paulo Motta, who put in a man-of-the-match performance.
It looked like an easy win on paper for the United States, but Clint Dempsey was well aware of the pitfalls inherent to CONCACAF play.
"It’s a passionate crowd, wanting their team to do well and sometimes dealing with difficult conditions, dealing with travel, that's part of qualifying for the World Cup," he said, per Goal.com's Chris Myson.
The loss snapped the United States' 21-match unbeaten streak against Guatemala, which was its longest such streak against any other nation. The result leaves the United States with ground to make up if they are to move on to CONCACAF's Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying.
Here are the Group C standings after Friday's fixtures.
|Trinidad & Tobago||3||2||1||0||2||7|
|St. Vincent & Grenadines||3||0||0||3||-10||0|
Both sides provided a look at their respective starting lineups prior to the match:
U.S. Soccer @ussoccer
Tonight's #USMNT starting XI for #USAvGUA. The #RoadToRussia continues at 10pm ET on @beINSPORTS & @NBCUniverso. https://t.co/SVI5OSi67Y2016-3-26 00:57:13
FEDEFUT GUATE @fedefut_oficial
#OFICIAL 11 inicial #VamosGuate https://t.co/kOAQvsp7v12016-3-26 00:44:10
ESPN broadcaster Roberto Abramowitz would question head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's selection after the match:
Roberto Abramowitz @RobAbramowitz
#GUAvUSA When will Klinsmann stop building his own Frankenstein and start playing people in their natural positions? #EnoughExperimenting2016-3-26 04:32:47
Injuries to center backs Matt Besler and John Brooks, per Sports Illustrated, left Klinsmann with a makeshift central pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Michael Orozco.
Once a fixture in the starting 11, the inclusion of goalkeeper Tim Howard came as a bit of a surprise. Howard's abilities have declined sharply since his star turn at the 2014 World Cup. He lost his starting role at Everton in January and made a March move to Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids.
Howard's first game action in approximately two months did not go well, as Guatemala struck in the seventh minute to put early pressure on the away side.
Some sloppy play from the USA at the back led to a Guatemala corner. Jean Marquez's looping kick came in at a dangerous position, and Morales towered over a flailing Mix Diskerud to meet it. His header skipped past a late-diving Howard and into the back corner of the net for the shock 1-0 advantage.
BeIn Sports USA has the goal:
beIN SPORTS USA @beINSPORTSUSA
GOAL! @MoralesRafa14 towers over @Mixdiskerud and scores a commanding header. #USAvGUA https://t.co/R5R7QbamZQ2016-3-26 02:17:11
The Cauldron's Andy Glockner faulted Howard for the goal and its buildup:
Andy Glockner @AndyGlockner
Howard conceded the corner with a bad touch, and then looked his age reacting to the header.2016-3-26 02:18:47
The United States responded by dominating possession, with young Bobby Wood keeping Guatemala's back line busy and the likes of Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya controlling the ball well in midfield. Los Chapines were missing the dynamic presence of Marco Pappa in midfield but still managed to double their advantage in the 15th minute.
A long goal kick from Motta bounced its way through the midfield, and Guatemala forward Ruiz sneaked past a fast-asleep United States back line to get a one-on-one with Howard. Ruiz's first touch saw him calmly place the ball under Howard for a 2-0 lead.
BeIn Sports USA provided a look at the goal, which showed a glaring lack of awareness from Gonzalez and Orozco:
beIN SPORTS USA @beINSPORTSUSA
Aaaand just like that, Carlos Ruiz puts @USSoccer down by two #USAvGUA https://t.co/60gyn58gN92016-3-26 02:25:39
Fox Sports' Ryan Rosenblatt had a fairly simple explanation for the USMNT's predicament:
The thing about the #USMNT is they are bad. Once you accept that, everything else makes a lot more sense.2016-3-26 02:23:40
ESPN's Paul Carr noted Ruiz is up there with some big names in terms of international goalscoring:
Paul Carr @PCarrESPN
Most international goals by active players: 67 Robbie Keane 62 Zlatan Ibrahimovic 60 Carlos Ruiz2016-3-26 02:31:07
An uptick in pace from the United States kept Guatemala on the back foot for much of the rest of the first half. Bedoya had a great chance to peg one back for the United States after a deft through ball from Dempsey put him clear, but his shot went straight at Motta.
Wood continued to look dangerous, but his efforts weren't enough to prevent the away side from going into the half down two goals.
The United States made one change at the break, bringing in Darlington Nagbe for Diskerud. Guatemala brought on Pappa to start the second half, and he immediately made his presence felt with a nifty nutmeg to get past Bradley and send a long-range shot at Howard, who cooly knocked it away. BeIn Sports USA provided a look at Pappa's show of skill:
beIN SPORTS USA @beINSPORTSUSA
Ole! Michael Bradley just got megged badly. Look away! #USAvGUA https://t.co/iwwaVoHRcC2016-3-26 03:13:58
That was the last spark from Guatemala for some time, as the United States poured forward in a desperate bid to get on the scoreboard. A deft pass from DeAndre Yedlin put Dempsey in scoring position in the 54th minute, but Motta did well to block the shot and Bedoya's subsequent strike off the deflection.
The indefatigable Wood teed up Dempsey again a few minutes later, but Motta again made the save. Soccer America's Paul Kennedy felt Motta was clearly the better of the two aging keepers on the night:
Paul Kennedy @pkedit
In the battle of the two old-as-dirt keepers, Paulo Motta has the edge tonight, you think? #USAvCOL2016-3-26 03:19:57
Klinsmann sought to add some attacking verve with his last substitutions, bringing on Gyasi Zardes and Jozy Altidore for Orozco and Gonzalez, respectively. Despite the relentless pressure, the final ball was lacking for the USMNT. Men In Blazers was not happy with the display:
Men in Blazers @MenInBlazers
Put in order of Crapness: 1. Batman v Superman 2. My Greek Fat Wedding II 3. USMNT tonight2016-3-26 03:36:17
Motta again played hero in the 82nd minute, deflecting a shot from a wide-open Altidore with his outstretched right leg. The United States wouldn't get another chance at goal despite spending plenty of time in the final third, and Guatemala held on for the upset victory.
The United States and Guatemala will tangle again Tuesday, this time from Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Look for Klinsmann to bring in Brad Guzan in goal, while perhaps pairing Altidore up top with Wood if the former is fully fit.
Despite the poor performance on Friday, the United States should be able to snag three points in the return fixture.
Klinsmann blamed the dreadful start on a lack of mental sharpness.
"I think it was a lack of focus, concentration, and wrong decisions," he said, per the Associated Press. "We have to take responsibility for it, every one of us, coaches, players, and move on and get it done on Tuesday."
Guatemala did indeed look the more confident and aggressive squad early on, even if the United States held the lion's share of possession.
Klinsmann shed more light on Morales' opening goal, per Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl:
Grant Wahl @GrantWahl
Klinsmann on 1st GUA goal: There was supposed to be a US player on the post. Was drawn up that way in locker room.2016-3-26 04:29:26
Despite the poor result, Klinsmann isn't giving up on his players. "I absolutely believe in these players. Young, old, it doesn't matter," he said, per ESPN's Jeff Carlisle.
There were certainly bright spots in the performance. The hard work of Wood and Nagbe led to some of the United States' best chances, even if poor finishing doomed them to a loss.
Klinsmann's beleaguered squad may get a bit of a break on Tuesday, as Ruiz won't be joining Guatemala on the trip north. "No, definitely he will not travel with us," said Guatemala manager Walter Claveri, per Carlisle.
Even without Ruiz in tow, the United States should expect a spirited effort from their opponents. Guatemala is still looking to qualify for their first-ever World Cup tournament, and the current standings in Group C have them going through to the next round, with three games to play.