World Cup qualifying is truly underway, and the US national team has already chalked up the customary "disappointing home win in the pre-Hexagonal round" that for whatever reason we can never do without. Antigua & Barbuda played their hearts out, to be sure, but the 3-1 scoreline was still very frustrating for US fans. After all, the Benna Boys consist mostly of players from a single USL club. Keep in mind that Clyde Simms was the last USL player to get a cap for the US, and it required a player strike and the generosity of Bruce Arena.
Then again, it could have been worse. Our opponent tomorrow, Guatemala, were more or less comprehensively outclassed by Jamaica, who won 2-1 in Kingston. The scoreline flattered Los Chapines, as Jamaica put together some long stretches of possession and will be fairly disappointed in themselves for not making this crucial victory a more emphatic one. Given the thin margin for error in the group, Guatemala is already in a situation where they need to take a point against the group heavyweights (that's us), or at least win their home game against Jamaica by a healthy margin.
Guatemala will, as per usual, have some familiar faces to MLS fans. Marco Pappa is arguably their most important player; if the erratic Chicago Fire attacker can be focused and keep his game simple, he's always a threat to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Meanwhile, Carlos Ruiz is still their top goal threat, as well as their diver-in-chief. Sure, neither of them would get a sniff of our national team these days, but that doesn't make them poor players. A mistake like the one Oguchi Onyewu had on Friday would be even more dangerous against them, as both are better than Peter Byers.
There could be even more known quantities in the Guatemala squad, but former LA Galaxy attacker Guillermo Ramirez and former Real Salt Lake defender Gustavo Cabrera - along with defender Yony Flores - have all been implicated in a match-fixing scandal. The trio were kicked off the squad after the charges, which pertain to games for both Guatemala and (for the latter two) with their club team in CONCACAF Champions League play, came out last week. All three were probable starters for Guatemala, and with 249 caps between them it's safe to say Los Chapines have lost a huge amount of experience and quality.
All that said, games against Guatemala are never, ever easy. They fight tooth-and-nail, and are perfectly at home turning the game into a knockdown, drag-out brawl. There is no team in CONCACAF more likely to be involved in an ugly, fractious sort of match. The best way to put it is this: If you have a friend you want to introduce to the beautiful game, this is just about the worst game to use as evidence of soccer's greatness.
Guatemala will likely play a somewhat unique 541. It will at times look like a 343, a 3421, and if they opt for a long-ball approach, even a 523.
|R. Morales?||J. Lopez?|
The big question marks are down the flanks and in central midfield. On the flanks, head coach Ever Almeida will have the choice between using more attack-minded wingbacks like Marvin Avila (a tricky, speedy winger with his club side CSD Municipal) or Jairo Arreola (a winger/forward at his club, CSD Comunicaciones). However, the loss to Jamaica puts Guatemala in a situation that will likely bring out a more conservative response. As a result, look for Almeida to go for Jonathan Lopez - a midfielder/defender once linked with D.C. United in the Guatemalan press - and Rafael Morales, who is a true left back when he turns out for Comunicaciones.
Both will have to get forward sometimes, but Guatemala will likely be looking to keep the score 0-0 for a long time, then possibly opt for Avila or Arreola as an attacking sub in an effort to turn one point into three.
The central midfield roles, which are both primarily defensive, will probably go to Alejandro Galindo and Wilfred Velasquez. 20 year old Galindo is a big prospect for Guatemala, especially since he has dual citizenship (having spent most of his life in Colombia, where he plays with top division side Independiente Santa Fe).
If Almeida was unimpressed with their ability to stop Jamaica (a distinct possibility), he could opt for another youngster in Jose del Aguila - who was on trial with the Montreal Impact just after the 2011 season - or 37 year old veteran Gonzalo Romero. Romero isn't a natural in a central role, but there's no traditional left midfield spot in this formation. Unless they see him as a central possibility or perhaps a defensive sub for one of the attacking midfielders, there isn't much else for him to do other than clap from the bench.
The final spot that's up in the air is the role of the attacking midfielder/winger/forward/whatever that will be opposite Pappa, who despite his erratic play is definitely Guatemala's most dangerous player. Arreola got the call in Jamaica, but he didn't impress and found himself yanked at halftime. I expect Mario "El Loco" Rodriguez, who is a bit more experienced and more of a threat to score, to start instead. The downside for Almeida will be that Rodriguez has earned that nickname by being volatile and hot-tempered; if you happen to be somewhere that takes prop bets, throw some cash down on a Rodriguez red card.
The other possibility is that Guatemala play a 532 with Pappa in a free role between the midfield and strikers. In that case, veteran Dwight Pezzarossi would likely be the other forward, though 6'4" target man Minor Lopez (who plays in Chile's top division with Deportes La Serena) could also get the call if hold-up play is preferred.
The big threat to the US defense will be a player we all know and hate: Carlos Ruiz. The former MLS striker is now playing for Mexican 2nd division team Veracruz, who have often had one well-paid star (it used to be Cuauhtemoc Blanco) but seem to be permanently stuck below the top level. The danger with Ruiz is mostly down to his anticipation. El Pescadito has always had a knack for arriving a split second earlier than his defender, either to shoot or to draw minor contact that he can grossly exaggerate. Playing Ruiz can be infuriating, so discipline is a must. On an athletic level, the American center backs should have no problem with Ruiz, who doesn't look any fitter than he was when we last saw him in MLS with the Philadelphia Union.
Tactically, the Yanks should look to press high and force the wingbacks to play as fullbacks. Not only will this underline Guatemala's issues with first touch - the center backs and defensive midfielders are not going to be mistaken for skillful technicians any time soon - but it will also force Guatemala to stay in the 541 at all times. If the wingbacks can't join the midfield, then the attacking pair of midfielders will have fewer chances to jump forward and help Ruiz. That will strand Ruiz up front by himself, and his lack of mobility would likely render him helpless in such a situation.
Juergen Klinsmann will surely be harping on his squad to up the speed of play, even if the pitch at the Estadio Mateo Flores is, generally speaking, crap. Guatemala will often have nine men behind the ball, and the emphasis is very much on making this as ugly a game as possible. Longtime USMNT fans will not be shocked by that at all; games in Guatemala are usually the ugliest games you can find in CONCACAF (and that's saying something).
There's also the fact that Elias Vasquez, likely starting in defense thanks to the suspensions of Cabrera and Flores, is just 18 years old. He's a promising player to be sure, but if 18 is young for a national team player, it's incredibly young for a center back. Regardless of whether Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, or Jozy Altidore ends up at center forward, they should be looking to make runs on either side of Vasquez. This will be the biggest game of his young career, and there's no reason to treat him with kid gloves.
Play from the American outside backs will also be vital. With the congestion Guatemala will be creating, someone has to provide width and offer service from different angles. Playing through the middle will be tough simply due to numbers, and Guatemala is likely a bit less accustomed to defending a barrage of crosses. Steve Cherundolo and whoever our left back is - hopefully Fabian Johnson - will get their chances to put crosses in, and they can't go to waste.
The best reasonable scenario for the US in this game would likely require an early goal. Guatemala looked very shaky against Jamaica when forced to open up after Toronto FC's Ryan Johnson made it 2-0 just moments into the second half; simply put, they are not built to chase games. Barring that kind of luxury, the Yanks need to start at a high pace with the ball while avoiding the temptation to lose defensive focus. Our backs will go long spells with little do to, but Guatemala are rather adept at catching teams just when they start to relax a bit too much. Set piece play will also be important, as Brent Latham points out. Almeida is aware that his team doesn't offer much of an attacking threat, and as such they look to maximize their free kicks and corners.
Bottom line: This is a game the US should win, but it will require a higher speed of play and a solid display of discipline and focus throughout the American line-up.