Even though the United States dispatched of its first World Cup qualifier foes Antigua and Barbuda by a 3-1 score line, the performance did not impress fans. In fact, it worried them.
With a 1-1-1 friendly record heading into the qualifiers and injuries to left backs Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, perhaps it was optimistic to assume the U.S. wouldn’t be given any trouble by the minnows.
Howard failed to keep a clean sheet, which many expected he would, and the offense seemed reluctant to shoot the ball. The lack of goal-scoring opportunities – or rather, taking advantage of such opportunities – coupled with the obvious fatigue of the players in the last 20 minutes proved the Americans wouldn’t quite breeze through its qualifiers for a guaranteed ticket to Brazil.
The Yanks face Guatemala on Tuesday in the last match of their “five-game tournament” and final qualifier until September. While most of Antigua and Barbuda’s players belonged to lower division USL PRO clubs, most of Guatemala’s roster plays in their country – the exceptions being Carlos Ruiz in Mexico, Minor López in Chile, Alejandro Galindo in Colombia and Marco Pappa with MLS’s Chicago Fire.
While the competition is undoubtedly a step up from Antigua and Barbuda, Guatemala is still not infallible. The team lost to Jamaica 2-1 Friday and currently sits third in the group on goal differences. The U.S., in comparison, tops Group A, but just barely by one goal over Jamaica.
With a bye to the second round of World Cup qualifying, Guatemala sailed through to the next stage by winning every game against Belize, Granada and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Guatemalans aren’t likely to change their strategy or lineup against the U.S. Jerez, Gallardo, Morales, Vásquez, Rodriguez, J. López, Pappa, Velásquez, Arreola, Galindo and Gutierrez should all make the lineup.
What will be in question is the U.S.’s starting XI. It is uncertain if Johnson or Castillo will return from injury to fill the empty left-back space. José Torres also went down with an ankle contusion against Antigua and Barbuda but traveled with the team to Guatemala.
The backline is hardly worth mentioning as it has unquestionably been the Americans’ weakest link so far. With no left back, Carlos Bocanegra may have to move out to the wing, but Oguchi Onyewu as his replacement in the center is unsettling.
Although fans long awaited Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey sharing the pitch together under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the past few games have been underwhelming. Donovan lacked creativity in the midfield and seemed reluctant to shoot. The same could be said for much of the midfield.
There is a lot of Klinsmann’s roster that the opposition hasn’t seen yet or only for a few brief minutes. Although World Cup qualifiers may not be the optimal time to test out the bench, the clear exhaustion most of the starters displayed against Antigua and Barbuda may call for some fresh legs. Joe Corona impressed with the U-23s and Kyle Beckerman was an early favorite of Klinsmann. They might bring some life back to the midfield.
With many players possibly reaching their stamina limit, the travel to Guatemala may be even more taxing. The past four games were all played in the U.S. and Canada with mostly home team crowds. The change in scenery and support might challenge the already fragile U.S. squad.
Whatever the lineup, the U.S. will hope to continue an undefeated streak in World Cup qualifiers to secure its place at the championships in Brazil. At the very least, the horse might be faster to the barn – since the Yanks only have a friendly against Mexico on August 15 in the midst of a break before qualifiers start again September 7.
The match kicks off at 9 p.m. CST on Tuesday. The game is only available on pay-per-view and ustream.tv. The Sweetwater Bar & Grille will show the game for a $5 cover charge. Otherwise, the game will be live tweeted on @ussoccer and ussoccer.com’s Match Tracker.