The song remains the same.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the U.S. unbeaten streak against Guatemala in qualifying play had to end, but the timing sure was lousy. The USA is riding a bleak streak of ineptitude against Concacaf opponents, both in friendlies and games that count.
Since stumbling against Jamaica and Panama (on penalties) in the Gold Cup semifinals and third-place match, respectively, last summer, the Americans have beaten only St. Vincent & the Grenadines in competitive play and bested Canada in a friendly. They lost the Concacaf Cup playoff to Mexico and a follow-up match against Costa Rica in October, got a road point in a qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago five months ago, and stumbled in Guatemala.
The six-match semifinal round leaves little margin for error and the Americans wiped out just about all of it by losing, 2-0, in Guatemala City on Friday. It’s not unreasonable to think they can win their three remaining games and qualify for the Hexagonal -- and perhaps even win the group -- with a 4-1-1 record.
But the psyche of this team remains an enigma. It had plenty of veteran leadership on the field Friday, yet conceded two goals in the first quarter of an hour and squandered numerous opportunities to get back into the game. Many times during the reign of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann it has sputtered early and rallied dramatically but lately the comeback magic has vanished.
It fell behind Guatemala on the second of back-to-back corner kicks initially surrendered on a poor back pass, then let a goal kick zip past two players and between two others for Guatemala’s most dangerous player to collect uncontested and stroke into the net.These are terrible goals to concede in a friendly. In a qualifier, they are unforgivable. Yet still there were 75 minutes to salvage something out of the game, but the Americans lacked the ruthlessness of their opponents when chances arose. Bobby Wood, Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley all faltered at the crucial moment.
Dempsey forced a good kick save by keeper Paulo Motta, as did Altidore, but also fired perhaps the best U.S. chance of the game right to the keeper. Such misfortune can occasionally befall the best of players, but the squandered chance seemed entirely appropriate given the team’s dysfunctional persona.
So, too, does the ongoing saga that is Mix Diskerud. Set aside for a moment his miscast role as the holding complement to Bradley in central midfield. On a set play such as corner kick, a defensive player has two responsibilities: either win the ball or prevent your mark from doing so.
Instead, defender Rafael Morales overpowered Diskerud and headed a ball that bounced off the U.S. midfielder and into the net. On Guatemala’s coast-to-coast goal kick, the ball just cleared Bradley and bounced right past Diskerud as well as between centerbacks Omar Gonzalez and Michael Orozco. Both goals reeked of confusion and uncertainty inexcusable at the senior level.
Did Diskerud and/or Klinsmann put too much stock into his performance during a 1-0 friendly defeat of Canada Feb. 5? Was there confusion over responsibilities because probable starters John Brooks and Matt Besler were late scratches because of injuries sustained in training? How many players out of position is too much to overcome in a qualifier against an opponent brimming with renewed confidence in the wake of a coaching change?
For whatever reason, the Americans lacked a vital ingredient -- belief -- at the start of the game and only gradually regained their stride as the match unfolded. But the desperately needed goal never came, and with a two-goal lead, the Guatemalans seldom bothered to run dribblers at left back Edgar Castillo or push aggressively through the middle at Gonzalez and Orozco.
Such won’t be the case for the return leg Tuesday in Columbus, when counterattacks could be on from the opening kickoff. Guatemala is playing with house money now, and by squeezing out at least point would also deprive the U.S. of a must-win. The Americans can rectify their immediate dilemma by winning but the long-term forecast remains murky.
The match in Guatemala further dented Klinsmann’s mantra that the U.S. suffers by not having players competing in the UEFA Champions League. Mexico and Costa Rica are certainly superior in that regard, but Panama and Jamaica and Guatemala are not.
All that matters right now is Concacaf. The Copa America Centenario is destined to be a great spectacle and a rich resource for players, fans, coaches, journalists, and broadcasters -- not to mention sponsors -- but the task for Klinsmann and his players is to regain relevance within the region. And by the way, Costa Rica is in the USA’s Centenario group.
The players must be faulted for faltering at critical moments, but if the true test of a head coach is to give his team a maximum chance to succeed, Klinsmann failed in Guatemala City.