GUATEMALA CITY — The chants started more than two hours before kickoff, a stadium full of Guatemalans singing as one: “SÍ SE PUEDE! SÍ SE PUEDE!” (YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN!) But by the end of a stunning 90 minutes, after Guatemala had scored two goals and exposed the U.S.’s early lack of focus, the chants had changed ever so slightly.
Now that Guatemala was sealing a historic 2–0 World Cup qualifying victory—it’s first win in 21 games against the U.S. going back to 1988—the wall of sound made the verb tense clear: “SÍ SE PUDO! SÍ SE PUDO!” (YES WE COULD!) In the past 18 months, as the U.S. men’s World Cup 2014 hangover has extended into a full-blown program malaise, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team has given new belief to a number of CONCACAF teams.
In 2015 alone, these things happened: Jamaica won a competitive game against the U.S. on American soil for the first time in 10 tries. Panama did the same for the second time in 11 tries. And Mexico beat the U.S. for the first time in seven tries overall since Klinsmann took over in 2011.
Let’s be honest: Guatemala is not nearly as good as any of those CONCACAF teams. The Chapines, ranked No. 95 in the world by FIFA, barely got past lightweights Bermuda and Antigua & Barbuda just to reach this semifinal round of qualifying—and then promptly lost their home opener to Trinidad & Tobago last November. Compared to the other two semifinal-round groups in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the U.S. got a sweetheart of a draw with T&T, Guatemala and St. Vincent & the Grenadines.
And yet so far in three games the U.S. has only managed one victory against overmatched St. Vincent and has yet to score in the other two games away against T&T and Guatemala. The first 15 minutes here on Friday were a disaster for the U.S., which saw elementary defensive breakdowns give the hosts a shocking 2–0 early lead.
“It was a lack of focus, concentration and wrong decisions,” said Klinsmann afterward. “On the first goal [off a corner kick] … nobody covered the first post. And we can write everything on the whiteboard—it’s in the locker room—if they have that kind of moment where they are not kind of remembering where their position is, then things like that can happen. But on this level obviously you get punished, and it shouldn’t happen that way.
“The second goal [in which Carlos Ruiz pounced on a goal kick straight up the middle to score] was a sequence of mistakes,” Klinsmann continued, “from Michael [Bradley] not heading the ball to the centerbacks thinking that Michael has it, and one thinking the other has it. The ball goes through, and that’s what Carlos Ruiz is famous for.”
When pressed on why the U.S. had such a lack of concentration in the first 15 minutes, when you would think the focus would be at its highest, Klinsmann said: “Maybe that’s a question for the players.”
Over to you, then, Michael Bradley.
“We didn’t start the game well. I don’t think it takes a genius to see that,” said the captain. “Why? I don’t have a good answer for you. Obviously, the goal is always to start well, to start in a positive way, to play the game in the other team’s end. There’s nights when you succeed in a good way, and there’s other nights when you don’t. Obviously, tonight wasn’t a good start, and you can still on some nights deal with things and play your way into it. And tonight we weren’t able to in any way.”
Bradley wasn’t as sharp in this game as he often is, but give him credit for raising his hand on the second Guatemalan goal.
“The goalkeeper kicks the ball and it comes quick and knuckling, and I saw it a bit late,” Bradley said. “And rather than try to jump and flick it in a weird way, I thought it was going to be best for our defenders if they were able to see it and attack it from there. And obviously it wasn’t the case. So certainly from my end I could have done better. When you play these types of games, all these little plays add up in big ways.”
As for the other goal, and the man on the post who Klinsmann said should have been there, goalkeeper Tim Howard said he thought a Guatemalan player pulled Edgar Castillo off the post.
“In an ideal world, you’d like to have ever post marked up,” said Howard. “But part of marking on set-pieces, what we do is we try and snuff out the danger before it gets to having a guy on the post. Nowadays you need to put guys in good spots, get everyone marked up and sometimes you sacrifice the man on the post. Of course, when the ball goes in just inside the post you go back to the old argument: Should you have a guy on the post?”
When Klinsmann was asked why he chose to start Mix Diskerud in the central midfield (instead of Kyle Beckerman, Geoff Cameron, Lee Nguyen or Darlington Nagbe), he said he thought Diskerud could move the ball and create a midfield passing rhythm. But the coach took Diskerud off after 45 minutes for Nagbe because he felt like Diskerud and Bradley dropped too far back to link up with forwards Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood.
It’s also worth noting that Klinsmann didn’t just direct blame at others for the brutal result. “No matter if you win or lose, you question everything that happens during a game and you question yourself: ‘O.K., was this the right lineup? Was this the right substitutions? Was this the right way to approach it? What should we have done differently? Better?’” Klinsmann said. “Absolutely, you question that and you kind of think how can we fix this and this?”
“At the end of the day, with the two mistakes that we did, with those two goals, you just have to swallow it. Because those are individual mistakes that you cannot do on that level. That’s what happened tonight. So we’ll take the blame. I’ll take the blame, if you want to hear that.
“There’s absolute trust in the players because you’ve got to move on. You know, s--- happens, but you’ve got to move on and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go back to Columbus and we correct those mistakes, and there’s an absolute belief in these players.”
And so the pressure mounts ahead of Tuesday’s rematch against Guatemala in Ohio. It’s not 100% a must-win game, but it is a nearly must-win, and it’s most definitely a do-not-lose game. A loss would put qualifying for World Cup 2018 in serious jeopardy.
Klinsmann’s boss, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, knows the history, knows the U.S. has taken it to the last game of the semifinal round twice (in 2000 and ’12) before clinching passage to the Hexagonal. “If we get a good result on Tuesday like we expect, then things are back on track,” Gulati said on Friday.
He’s right. But getting that good result on Tuesday looms large now. The margin for error is getting awfully slim.