The United States saved their best for last. After a slow start under new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the United States men’s soccer team had already scored two historic victories on foreign soil –with wins against Italy and Mexico– to reestablish their presence in the game. With their dominant victory against 3-1 Guatemala, Klinsmann’s team will add another breakthrough on the year, as they enter the final Hexagonal round of the CONCACAF World Cup in sole possession of first place.
Klinsmann has been on a mission to develop depth from the moment he took the reins of the national team, just more than a year ago. His stated goal, repeated time and again, has been to created competition at every position by fostering an environment in which players are constantly trying to one-up each other, raising the level of the entire program and increasing versatility in the process. And as the Americans demonstrated in their impressive performance in their first elimination game in a qualifying round since 2000 –and only the second in 23 years– Klinsmann’s strategy has been effective, as they’re now one step closer to Rio.
The former German national team star player and coach, who has lived in California for more than a decade, suggested that his team had “demonstrated a new chemistry” in the game, and that “the partnerships are getting smoother and smoother.” Klinsmann’s opening lineup featuring the miraculous Clint Dempsey, the hardworking Herculez Gomez and the eager Eddie Johnson were fearless. Despite some early wrinkles, on their one true moment of the first-half fluidity the Americans got their go-ahead goal at Livestrong Park in Kansas City. The combination of Dempsey and Johnson in attack and the balance of Michael Bradley and Danny Williams in front on defense was vital for Klinesmann.
After Carlos Ruiz put Guatemala ahead in the fifth minute, Dempsey set up Carlos Bocanegra’s equalizer in the 10th minute, the scored in the 18th and 36th to help the U.S. top its semifinal group with 13 points. The second came after Ruiz sent a header over the crossbar, and the Americans came on the counterattack. The ball was pushed ahead to Johnson on the wing, who found Dempsey cutting to the net ahead of defender Jonathan Lopez, to score the goal. The U.S.’s relief was palpable. Dempsey roared with his “Deuce face” to match and Klinesmann double-pumped his first on the sideline. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Dempsey’s 30 international goals are tied with Brian McBride for the third-most in American history.
After six games in which they compiled an erratic 4-1-1- record, it is almost impossible to identify exactly where the USMNT is in terms of their progress. The U.S. is seeking its seventh consecutive World Cup appearance. The final round will include Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Jamaica– who defeated the Americans a month ago. This time the Americans understand there’s no room for error.
“We gave away a game in Jamaica and we had to pay the price. That is how soccer works,” explained Klinsmann. “We expected a very difficult qualifying campaign, and that’s what this is. We made it clear we’re the number one team in this group and the next round will be harder. When there’s something at stake, like a World Cup qualifier, they know they have to be spot on.”
Failing to qualify for the World Cup would have been devastating for the U.S., still trying to regain the confidence it had when reaching the 2002 quarterfinals. The Hexagonal round starts March 22.