We’ve heard the rhetoric from Klinsmann. Tonight will be his team’s first test at playing the right kind of nasty.
Nearly a fortnight ago, the United States fell to visiting Brazil 4-1 at FedEx Field outside of Washington, D.C. The Americans gave a strong effort, but Neymar’s crew took apart an aging US backline. After the match, United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann uttered a word that many have analyzed: “nasty.” We’ve even discussed this on this site in an article from earlier this week.
Rather than read any more into the word, let’s just say that this element will be needed this evening, as the United States travels to the Estadio Mateo Flores to face Guatemala.
What do we know about Guatemala?
They are currently on zero points, losing 2-1 in Kingston to the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica. To exit the first long weekend of World Cup Qualifiers on zero points would mean a deep cavern to escape for the Blue and White – especially if Jamaica earns an away win at Antigua and Barbuda.
We also know that their coach Hugo Almeida has preferred a 5-4-1 setup for his team. Guatemala may be perfectly happy with a point in this match, knowing that September brings a home-and-away set with up-and-comers Antigua and Barbuda. With two teams earning a place in the Hexagonal, a draw against the Group A favorites could prove a valuable point towards qualification to the Fourth Round.
How will Guatemala play?
La Azul y Blancos will certainly take a page from Canada’s book, not from a formation standpoint, but from a mindset. Five at the back will look to frustrate in the final third, but should also allow the midfield four to pressure the United States midfield. Width at the back for Guatemala should make flank play more difficult for the US, and should also congest space just at the edge of their own 18 yard line. Now, Almeida could opt to drop one of his defenders for an extra midfielder, since the US uses a single forward. If that happens, you would still see a fairly defensive tactic from the Guatamalans, but with more congestion outside the area.
Carlos Ruiz, the journeyman pest who currently plays for Veracruz in the Liga de Ascenso in Mexico, is the perfect striker to play in this system. In the 2011 Gold Cup Quarterfinals against Mexico, Ruiz caught El Tri napping at the back for an early goal on the counter. In that match, Mexico had the ingenuity to overcome that early setback and defeat Guatemala 2-1. Klinsmann will need to choose his center back pairing wisely this evening, because Ruiz can be lethal if he finds a way behind a defense.
How will the United States play?
The Americans have redefined their style with Klinsmann at the helm, playing a higher-tempo brand of football predicated on fluidity in midfield and width from the fullbacks. To this author, it has been telling that the play of the United States has been less effective since Fabian Johnson got injured. Against both Scotland and Brazil, his speed and technique were a real asset. While Edgar Castillo and Jose Torres both were serviceable in the role, Johnson seems well-adjusted to the tactics needed to be an effective wing player. If Johnson is ready, he has the ability to make an opposing back miss, force the rest of their backline to react, and eventually lead to space created for the attackers.
If Johnson isn’t healthy enough to start, Klinsmann could call on Carlos Bocanegra to slide out to left back and allow either Oguchi Onyewu or Geoff Cameron to enter the lineup at center back alongside Clarence Goodson. The better option might be Michael Parkhurst at left back. This would keep the Bocanegra-Goodson tandem together against a wily veteran like Ruiz. In any event, the best-case scenario would be a green light for Johnson to create havoc along the left touch line.
Herculez Gomez appears to have solidified his place as starting striker in the 4-5-1 system. Klinsmann has continued to allude to Jozy Altidore’s lack of fitness as a reason he is not starting at the moment, and so it should come down to Gomez or Terrence Boyd. It will be interesting to see if Klinsmann makes any tactical adjustment at striker, with 3 center backs surrounding Gomez – one could think the more-physical Boyd might manage better in that situation.
The biggest key for this match will be whether the United States will be cutthroat enough to take their chances when offered. The desire to create was evident against Antigua and Barbuda, but their zeal for goal was lacking. The chances should not be as plentiful against Guatemala, and three points for the United States may rest upon the Americans’ ability to simply shoot when the opportunity appears, rather than look for that one extra pass which leads to a giveaway.
The secondary key is to be mindful of the counterattack, and not allow Ruiz to breach what will likely be a high backline. This should be a low-scoring affair, and a clean sheet is a near necessity this evening. Look for a long through to Ruiz which could create a difficult choice for Bocanegra or Goodson – whether to commit a professional foul or allow Ruiz one-on-one with Howard.
That gets to the final key, discipline. There is nothing easy about playing in Guatemala. A crowd of 30,000 should be primed to intimidate, not only the Americans but the officials in charge of maintaining order. The US must maintain their composure (we’re looking at you Jermaine Jones), because this match has historically provided a red card or two. Frustration levels could rise if a goal fails to come for the US, and the last thing the Americans need is to see this match out undermanned.
That’s where this term, “nasty,” can be precarious. If the wrong aspect of that term is embodied by the Americans this evening, it could make their road to the Hexagonal much tougher. But if they embrace what Klinsmann wants, which is an attitude of those unwilling to settle for defeat, they should prevail.
The United States will eke out the victory, 2-1, after Guatemala claws back with a goal late.
You will either need to shell out $29.95 to see this on your screen at home, or head to one of these bars that have bought the rights to show the match on their screens.
NOTE: There will be a live pregame and postgame show hosted by Daniel Feuerstein with analysis by the author of this piece. The pregame will start at 9:30 PM, and postgame will begin at midnight. Point your browser here to find the player to listen to the broadcast.