USA must improve before next round
KANSAS CITY, KANSAS
The flags waved, the fans bellowed, and the final scoreboard read the way the U.S. needed it to in order to guarantee advancing to next year’s final round of World Cup qualifying: 3-1. An American victory fueled by that aggressive, attacking style we’ve heard so much about.
It was a grand day. No doubt. It also came with a dangerous asterisk – one easy to lose in the glow of the game and the zeal of the comeback, but real enough to cause serious problems down the road.
“The team responded well,” USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said afterward. “The team is growing.”
Yes, it is growing, but from – and into – what?
This was a dominant win that masked a bevy of problems that could prove a real problem on the road to Brazil and, if they make it that far, into the 2014 World Cup itself: this team is still weak on defense, often disjointed as a group still implementing a new system and worrisomely willing to play down to competition it should flick aside.
This U.S. team lost to Jamaica in this qualifying round, the first time that had happened, ever. It scraped out a 2-1 win against lowly Antigua and Barbuda, an uninspired win by a team that was trying its best to imitate the sparsely populated country it should have handled with ease.
So Tuesday’s game against Guatemala, who has not beaten the Americans since 1988, was a critical moment. Win and advance, draw and see what happens, lose and perhaps be out.
Great soccer teams at this level do not put themselves in that kind of position.
Good ones close to being great? They win running away.
So-so teams that still seem on the razor’s edge of epic disappointment and doing the minimum of what is expected? They go down 1-0 in the blink of an eye and have to come roaring back.
It started with a blazing, brutal spotlight on the defensive weaknesses: A goal in the fifth minute by Guatemalan forward Carlos Ruiz. The fifth minute. It was a gut punch, a dagger of a goal that silenced the raucous crowd at Livestrong Sporting Park outside Kansas City, that for the moment reminded them who their team is.
“Obviously it didn’t make you happy, after five minutes,” Klinsmann said. “No doubt about it.”
Added midfielder Michael Bradley: “We have no divine right just to step on the field (and win). There’s another team.”
This was not a strong Guatemalan team – in losing 3-1 to the Americans they failed to advance – and yet for a brief flash they held America’s future in their hands. Five minutes is all it took to show that a feckless defense and a discombobulated team with only one true international-level star can be beat, anywhere, anytime.
It is also true, lucky enough for the Americans, that their one real international-level star can almost single-handedly beat teams like Guatemala.
And that star would be Clint Dempsey.
In the 10th minute, after a five-minute eternity of self-doubt for American fans, Dempsey fed Carlos Bocanegra for a goal. He followed with two of his own, one in the 18th minute with an assist from the newly re-installed Eddie Johnson, another in the 36th minute from Bradley.
“You need that fire under you, to know nothing is guaranteed,” Dempsey said.
But this is guaranteed: Dempsey must be great for the Americans to win. So is this: Americans should not have to celebrate a comeback win at home over Guatemala to stay alive. This too: The next level of competition will not be so easy to beat. This kind of play from the Americans will get the quick exit Guatemala threatened five minutes in.
“We know there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Dempsey said. “We know we need to sharpen up.”
Perhaps they will. They have until March to get ready, and the Americans’ six shots on goal punctuated the kind of offense Klinsmann hopes to see: More aggressive, shot-oriented, and (after the equalizer) in control. Three goals is nothing to scoff at; nor is the comeback. It was a great day for this team, as long as it knows the way it played in this group won’t be nearly enough next year.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.