BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Less than 24 hours after leaving Azteca Stadium with an IV line hooked into one of his arms after 90-plus minutes of running around in the thin Mexican air, U.S. captain Claudio Reyna looked relieved to be back close to sea level.
"You do sense a difference," said Reyna, who took a much-needed day of rest while the majority of the U.S. went through a light training session at the University of Alabama-Birmingham on Monday afternoon. "We all took a big, deep breath when we got off the plane."
With all those extra red blood cells filling their bodies after training at 7,200 feet above seal level for two weeks, and another few days in Mexico City where the side lost to the Tricolores 2-1 on Sunday afternoon, the Americans are primed for a much better showing Wednesday evening against Guatemala at Legion Field in their third of 10 World Cup qualifying matches.
"Now we're back home," said goalkeeper Kasey Keller. "And the goal is three points."
"We expect to win this game," said U.S. manager Bruce Arena. "We have to go out and prove that. Guatemala is not going to be an easy team to play against."
While Guatemala storms into Wednesday's match on a high after dominating Trinidad & Tobago in their 5-1 victory on Saturday night, this is hardly a side that compares with Mexico or even Costa Rica as the favorites to qualify for the World Cup out of the CONCACAF region. Thus far, they have taken advantage of an easy schedule, having played the two sides -- T & T and Panama -- that have the longest odds to qualify out of this six-team group, to compile four points to move into second place behind Mexico. However, a mere tie on the road for Guatemala would be invaluable, as well as detrimental to the Americans.
To pull out a point, the visitors will be relying on star striker Carlos Ruiz, who found the back of the net two times over the weekend, and has lit up MLS over the past three seasons with a total of 61 goals throughout 83 total matches including playoff games.
The "Little Fish" will be paired with 25-year-old Dwight Pezzarossi, who has stints with Spanish side Racing de Ferrol and Bolton Wanderers of the English Premier League on his resume. Pezzarossi also tallied twice against the Soca Warriors, and was the player who set up Ruiz for his 88th minute strike against the U.S. to pull off a 1-1 tie back on July 16, 2000 during their World Cup qualifier in Mazatenango, Guatemala.
"With Ruiz and the big Italian, they've got a pretty good combination up front that can give teams a handful," said Keller, who manned the nets during that incredibly hot and steamy afternoon nearly five years ago.
Oddly enough, Ruiz is included in the recent news surrounding the future of Landon Donovan. Though it has yet to be made official, a complicated deal will apparently bring the U.S. midfielder back home to MLS to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. As part of the deal, Ruiz will be reportedly be traded to FC Dallas, where he would be a part of a three-man forward line with U.S. striker Eddie Johnson.
Whether Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman can call Ruiz a teammate of his right now or not, he knows all too well how dangerous the diminutive striker can be to the U.S. on Wednesday night.
"Carlos is someone who simply steps up when the pressure is on," said Hartman, who is one of three goalkeepers in camp for the U.S. "He's done that for the Galaxy and also for his national team over the years. What's tricky about him is that he has multiple dimensions. He can post up on you and receive balls, or run off the other forward into space.
"He loves to prove himself, too. And this is a perfect opportunity for him to do that."
Eddie Pope has played against Ruiz the most over the years, but he remains with his club team in Salt Lake City since leaving the U.S. camp last week due to an injury. Whether Arena uses Gregg Berhalter and Oguchi Onyewu as centerbacks -- as was the case against Mexico -- or if he uses either Cory Gibbs or Carlos Bocanegra in the middle of defense, it's clear that Ruiz will be a marked man.
"Ruiz can hide for 89 minutes and get a goal," said Arena. "He's all about scoring goals. We have to be aware of where he is and not give him too many chances."
Guatemala hasn't faced the U.S. since that 1-1 tie in 2000, and hadn't experienced much success against the Americans before that. In the last 10 games of this series, the U.S. is 7-0-3, including a 3-1 victory on March 11, 1999 in Los Angeles, which is the only other time the sides have played during Arenas tenure as U.S. manager.
They'll obviously be looking to change that, and have to be feeling good knowing that the U.S. is coming off of a tough match and will be without midfielder DaMarcus Beasley due to yellow card accumulation.
"We expect a team coming in here probably with confidence," said Arena, "and also realizing that they can sit back a little bit and play for a point."
If Guatemala earns that point, the U.S. will take no solace in earning a point of its own. Having three points on its mark after two road matches isn't cause for concern in the least bit. With five home matches left, there are plenty of points for the taking. But it all begins on Wednesday night in a match that the Americans feel they must win to stay on track in the group.
"It's massively important," said Keller. "You win your home games and you draw away and you comfortably qualify for a World Cup. We picked up three points away in Trinidad, which is a bonus, and we're basically two points ahead of the curve now, but you have to win your home games. And that's what we're gearing up to do."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.