GUATEMALA CITY -- The U.S. men's national team now finds itself in a World Cup qualification dogfight.
The U.S. lost 2-0 to Guatemala at the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores -- its first loss to Los Chapines in 21 games -- thanks to goals from Rafael Morales and Carlos Ruiz. The U.S. now lies in third place in its qualifying group on four points, three behind Trinidad and Tobago and two behind Guatemala. Only the top two teams will progress to the final round Hexagonal.
1. If this isn't the worst loss of the Klinsmann era, it's close
The U.S. has had its share of low moments during Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure. It has even managed to lose to CONCACAF opponents on home soil on multiple occasions, so on the surface, losing a World Cup qualifier on the road wouldn't seem to be all that surprising. The conditions are always difficult and the crowds hostile. Games often bear a closer resemblance to a street fight, so both the U.S. and Klinsmann should have known what to expect.
Yet the U.S. looked as if it had no idea what it was in for. The team looked nervous, the touches were suspect and so were the passes.
Then there were the defensive lapses. Morales simply skied over Mix Diskerud to nod home a corner in the seventh minute, allowing a crowd that was already well into the game to ratchet up its intensity, giving the home side a huge boost of confidence. The U.S. team's misery was increased only eight minutes later from the most basic of plays. Goalkeeper Paulo Motta launched a goal kick upfield, and with center backs Omar Gonzalez and Michael Orozco way too far apart, the ball bounced to Ruiz, who ran through for a clear breakaway and deposited his shot past Tim Howard for a 2-0 lead.
At minimum, it was the worst half of Klinsmann's tenure.
The U.S. found more of the game thereafter, but found Motta in inspired form. He did well to stop a shot from Alejandro Bedoya in the 23rd minute, and then produced two superb saves on Clint Dempsey and Bedoya within seconds of each other seven minutes into the second half. He stymied Dempsey again five minutes later, albeit on a shot that was well within his range. Motta later pushed aside a shot from substitute Jozy Altidore, too.
Give Guatemala its due. It has been rejuvenated under new manager Walter Claveri, and came out with a plan to play direct while also mixing in some bits of possession as well. Its back line defended resolutely. But this loss will only serve to once again raise questions about the team's direction under Klinsmann. At the moment, it's not positive.
2. Patchwork defense doesn't get it done
When it came to Klinsmann's lineup choices, he produced more than a few surprises, though some of them were forced on the U.S. manager. A left knee contusion ruled out center back John Brooks not only for this match but Tuesday's encounter against this same Guatemala team as well. Klinsmann's options were lessened further when Matt Besler sustained a concussion in Thursday's training session.
But even with the options remaining, Klinsmann still left himself open to second guessing, opting to deploy Orozco as a center back and Geoff Cameron at right back. Klinsmann's choice of Diskerud alongside Michael Bradley was also something of a surprise. Given the game's expected rugged nature, Kyle Beckerman seemed a more natural fit, especially on the defensive end. Diskerud failed to impress on either side of the ball and was subbed at halftime for Darlington Nagbe. Orozco was pulled in the 59th minute for Gyasi Zardes with DeAndre Yedlin sliding to right back.
Back in November, the U.S. defense seemed to be stabilizing through Cameron and Besler. Yes, injuries played a part in the changes, but there also seems to be too much chopping and changing when it isn't necessary, and that falls on Klinsmann.
3. Tuesday's game is now a must win
Before Friday's game, the talk in the U.S. camp was about getting six points in these two games, locking up qualification to the final round Hexagonal and using the last two qualifiers in September to experiment with personnel. Now the complexion of this round has changed completely. A draw on Tuesday will leave the U.S. still in third place behind both Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago. Even a win will leave the U.S. ahead of Guatemala by only a single point, so there is no margin for error.
Can the U.S. get the job done? It actually has a bit of experience in this regard. Four years ago, the U.S. fell to Jamaica 2-1 on the road and had to regroup to play the Reggae Boyz again four days later. The U.S. ended up prevailing 1-0, and the road to qualification was back on track.
The U.S. will also benefit from the fact that Ruiz will not be able to play in the match because of a legal dispute that will prevent him from traveling to the U.S. Another player, Hamilton Lopez, will also not travel because of visa issues. Whether the U.S. can take advantage of such good fortune remains to be seen. At minimum, the pressure is increasing with the U.S. psyche requiring some repair work.