Win pretty, win ugly. Just win. At the end of tonight’s opening match of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying ESPN commentator Glenn Davis aptly shouted: “The US has won a streetfight in Guatemala!” In matches against the US, Guatemala plays just about the ugliest brand of soccer. Foul, dive, cheap shot. Not necessarily in that order. The US was not able to possess the ball well, nor was it able to effectively counterattack. The US simply grinded out a win on the strength of captain Carlos Bocanegra’s header. Bocanegra broke free thanks to a butt pick from Brian Ching and was able to guide an expertly placed DaMarcus Beasley corner kick in the lower right corner of the goal. Before the goal the highlights/lowlights were two ejections: Steven Cherundolo was sent off on two dubious cautions; Guatemalan defender Cabrera was given a straight red for absolutely T-boning Eddie Lewis, leaving him dazed and bloodied. Lewis could not continue.
Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra played nearly flawlessly. If they erred it was on the side of caution, often blasting the ball upfield or out of bounds when there were opportunities to pass. The veterans played smartly, winning tackles without fouling and covering for each other and the outside defenders who did not play as well. Guatemala learned early that it could exploit the left side of the US defense where Heath Pearce struggled. Most of Guatemala’s chances originated on its right side after balls were played behind Pearce. Fortunately Howard kept the players in front of him organized and the crosses did not prove difficult to defend. Lewis wasn’t much help. He played little defense and repeatedly lost possession. Beasley entered the match for the injured Lewis and immediately the US was more effetive defending and holding the ball. Beasley showed no signs of the hamstring injury that has limited his time with Rangers in the early part of the season.
Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Lewis all struggled to make anything positive happen in the offensive half. Dempsey had a few clever flicks and created space for himself a few times, but often was outnumbered three to one; he was unable to threaten the Guatemalan goal before being substituted. Donovan found no space to operate on the right side. His defensive work along with Cherundolo then Frankie Hejduk was key in limiting Guatemala’s chances form his side. It’s not a good sign when your most dangerous weapon’s first priority is defense. I’m sure Dempsey and Brian Ching would agree as they had little to work with. ESPN analyst John Harkes got it right when he said Ching improved as the match progressed. Ching was unable to connect with his teammates until after they went down to 10 men. He was excellent in the 2nd half, doing all the dirty work a good forward should do and helping the US to keep possession for stretches. Central midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Michael Bradley did not have particularly strong matches either. Both turned the ball over unneccessarily. Defensively they were solid. It took a few minutes for the US to find its shape but once it did it was only the left side that was vulnerable.
The newest Glasgow Ranger Maurice Edu came in for Pablo Mastroeni after a strong Olympic showing. He played capably, breaking up plays and connecting a few passes to kill off the game. Considering he has traveled from Beijing to Toronto to Glasgow to Los Angeles to Miami to Guatemala in the last week, I am amazed Edu can walk and talk, nevermind play in an important match for his national team.
Tonight’s win is an important win for US soccer. To truly assert regional dominance the US must use it superior technical ability, athleticism and tactics to win matches regardless of where they are. The earlier it can qualify for the next round, the more young players manager Bob Bradley can give opportunities to integrate with the team. Freddy Adu, Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore come to mind. Next up is Cuba in Havana on September 6. With another win, the US will be well on its way to the final round of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.