By Liviu Bird
After an uncomfortable, borderline tragic start, the United States took care of business and secured its passage into the final round of qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Clint Dempsey starred in a 3-1 win over Guatemala, and Eddie Johnson made his second consecutive start for the national team, assisting Dempsey’s game-winning goal.
The task seemed simple enough from the start: a draw with Guatemala, at home in raucous Kansas City, would be enough to send both teams through to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
However, with the slim victory over Antigua and Barbuda fresh in the Americans’ minds, a confidence-boosting victory would be more than welcome.
But if a strong start is what the United States wanted, it got the exact opposite.
Carlos Ruiz broke through early, taking advantage of a gift from the American center back pairing of Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron, who were disconnected. It was 1-0 inside the first five minutes, reminiscent of Canada’s shocking 8-1 defeat in Honduras earlier in the day.
Unlike Canada, the United States took attacking initiative from the start, pressing both before and after Guatemala’s early goal. Even down an early goal, the Americans had no reason to panic — the nightmare start did not look as if it would be sustained.
Just five minutes after the game’s first goal, Herculez Gomez tracked an errant pass toward the Guatemalan touchline and knocked it off a defender to win a corner kick. Dempsey’s smart near-post run was unmarked, and he flicked the ball to Bocanegra on the back post to atone for his earlier error.
Eight minutes later, a Dempsey run paid dividends again. Johnson picked him out behind Guatemala right back Jonathan Lopez after streaking down the right side with the ball, and Dempsey slid to score the go-ahead goal.
Johnson and Dempsey nearly combined a second time in the 29th minute, but goalkeeper Ricardo Jerez got his fingertips to Johnson’s cross to prevent Dempsey from getting the final touch.
The Tottenham man was clearly in form, and his runs were sharp. Each time, it was off the shoulder of a defender who didn’t have his head on a swivel, and each time, it resulted in a dangerous opportunity.
His 30th goal for the U.S. would come in the 37th minute, when he floated off Ruben Morales’ back shoulder and tapped in Michael Bradley’s cross on the ground just inches off the goal line. The replays showed Dempsey to be onside, despite vehement protests from the defense.
The U.S. could breathe a sigh of relief at halftime, having erased and reversed an early deficit in a manner that would prove to be disastrous for its opponent at the final whistle. With Jamaica up 2-0 over Antigua and Barbuda at halftime of the concurrent Group A match, the U.S. and Jamaica had a foot in the hexagonal round.
With the scoreline uneven, Guatemala brought on Minor Lopez at halftime, giving Ruiz a tall partner at forward. As the Chapines pressed, the U.S. was content to hold possession and pick its moments to attack.
Before the hour mark, Dempsey nearly had his hat trick, and Johnson nearly added a third goal in two games, but the final product was missing despite some sharp service from Graham Zusi and Steve Cherundolo on the right side.
The second half continued, fluctuating as the score in Jamaica changed. When Antigua pulled a goal back, putting Guatemala momentarily into the next round, it responded in Kansas City by falling back defensively.
Both teams seemed content with the 3-1 score, and aside from isolated half-chances from set pieces and shots from distance, neither created much offense in the period between minute 60 and minute 75.
With 10 minutes to go, Dane Richards scored for Jamaica, giving Jamaica a 3-1 lead and momentary passage into the next round yet again. It caused Guatemala to cancel a defensive substitution, the coaching staff changing its mind with the need to throw numbers forward rather than play for the status quo.
It was too late. Relying on Antigua to hold off Jamaica — a shaky proposition at best — proved foolish when a second Jamaican goal from Richards sealed Guatemala’s fate, even as Dwight Pezzarossi came on to inject some fresh life into the Chapines’ attack.
The United States and Jamaica will meet once again in the hexagonal, and the Americans’ road to Brazil leads through The Office in Kingston. Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda were eliminated.