Only in light of the fact the U.S. can play erratically against a regional minnow and still win can any satisfaction be derived from its 1-0 victory over Guatemala in the Group B opener at Home Depot Center Thursday night.
Guatemala had scraped out a 0-0 tie when the teams met in late March and threatened a few times to do the same after falling behind to a Clint Dempsey goal in the 26th minute set up by his former New England teammate Taylor Twellman. The USA can take some credit for preserving the victory against a spunky opponent and enduring the final 17 minutes a man short, but too often it frantically scrapped and flailed, rather than using its superior class to govern the tempo.
The game figured to be a struggle, despite the disparity in the team's past accomplishments and latest FIFA rankings (U.S. 31st, Guatemala 105th if you're keeping score at home). That tie in Dallas boosted Guatemala's confidence, and paced by a ferocious if reckless performance by Carlos Ruiz, it caught the U.S. off-balance a few times with its relentless zeal. Three players were cautioned, and Oguchi Onyewu's second yellow left the U.S. a man short. The Americans played as if they were waiting to be comforted by a second goal and when it didn't come, Guatemala surged back into the game with some neat play by Jose Contreras and Carlos Quinones.
Unlike the goalless game in Dallas, the U.S. did score early. But it blew two good chances before halftime to double that lead and perhaps crush most, if not all, of Guatemala's resistance. Instead, as fans of T&T and El Salvador piled into the stadium for the second game -- El Salvador won, 2-1 -- and Guatemala's spirit lifted its own fans, a loudening din rattled some of the U.S. players.
The pairing of Twellman and Dempsey up top is more than a nostalgic reunion, as Coach Bob Bradley is aware of Dempsey's offensive inclinations and mindful of the fact he played up top occasionally in MLS as well as a few times for Fulham at the end of the season. His role moved Landon Donovan out to the right side of midfield. Dempsey may or may not prove to be a viable candidate for the second forward slot, but of the two, Donovan has far more of the guile, energy and tenacity to play right mid.
Again paired in the middle were Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber, and for most of the first half, the U.S. midfield played well. DaMarcus Beasley threatened often on the left flank, and it was his cushioned header to Twellman from a Jonathan Bornstein chip that set up the goal. Twellman angled to the byline and withstood a hard challenge to center a ball Dempsey hit first-time into the net.
But only Donovan slowed the play down when it needed to be done. Feilhaber had many good touches but often was swept up by the churning pace, and Bradley's giveaways enabled Guatemala to apply pressure.
Donovan had some lively and incisive moments while receiving scant protection from referee Jose Pineda, who permitted a lot of contact for the most part but seemed to crack down in odd instances. On set plays, though, Donovan seldom hit a good ball. Dempsey, too, took a few rugged hits after the ball had gone.
The back line didn't cope well for much of the match. Onyewu received his second caution when he let a ball drop and had to foul Mario Rodriguez. Frankie Hejduk's bustling energy fit right into the game's profile but he too took a yellow. Carlos Bocanegra played a fairly solid game while having to cover for left back Bornstein occasionally, yet also went into the book.
Bornstein scrambled to contain Marvin Avila and his replacement, Carlos Figueroa, reflecting the shrewd tactics of Guatemala coach Hernan Dario Gomez to exploit the least experienced U.S. defender and also blunt Bornstein's ability going forward. Jonathan Spector might get the start in the next game.
The U.S. can win this group without playing at top gear. But it certainly needs to get out of first gear the next week.
Onyewu's ejection rules him out of the T&T game Saturday. The U.S. is well-stocked with defenders, and Jay DeMerit's late entry indicates he will probably take Onyewu's place.
Eddie Johnson didn't find his feet after coming on in the 61st minute. Despite his blistering form in MLS, his U.S. goalscoring woes continue. As do those of Twellman, despite his assist. He missed on two headers, the first of which deprived Donovan of a deserved assist, as a cross from right dropped perfectly, only for a charging, wide-open Twellman to head it a foot over the bar.
Tim Howard saved flawlessly on a low, driven free kick from Ruiz and commanded the box well.
Steve Ralston replaced Twellman just prior to Onyewu's ejection, which resulted in him dropping to right back. Hejduk finished the match in central defense, a rather crazy risk considering his proclivity to foul and the fact he'd already been cautioned. But in this instance at least, the U.S. rode out the storm.
June 7 in Carson, Calif.
USA 1 Guatemala 0. Goal: Dempsey 26.
USA -- Howard, Hejduk, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Bornstein, Bradley, Feilhaber (DeMerit, 81), Donovan, Beasley, Twellman (Ralston, 71), Dempsey (Johnson, 61)
Guatemala -- Tregueno, Noriega (Swisher, 89), Melgar, Medina, Cabrera, Albizuris, Contreras, Avila (Figueroa, 81), Gomez (Rodriguez, 71), Quinones, Ruiz.
Yellow cards: USA -- Hejduk 42, Onyewu 56, Onyewu 73, Bocanegra 77; Guatemala -- Gomez 67, Noriega 86.
Referee: Jose Pineda (Honduras).