Same old tricks from Guatemala
Few could have expected a match versus Guatemala to have any of the overtones of the famed U.S.-Italy game in the 2006 World Cup. In their best showing of that tournament, the undermanned Americans held off the eventual champions to earn a well-deserved tie after having two players sent off.
Yet on Thursday, there was Landon Donovan lying on the field, bleeding slightly from a collision with Guatemalan star Carlos Ruiz. It was a moment reminiscent of Brian McBride's bloody face at the World Cup, albeit with far less blood. There was Oguchi Onyewu stalking off the field, not unlike Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni had to do versus Italy. Onyewu was goaded a bit into the foul that earned the big defender his second yellow of the match and left his team short-handed for around 30 minutes.
Like there had been against the Azzurri, there were inconsistent calls from the referee that left both players and fans shaking their heads in confusion, though that was little consolation for the players left to struggle a man down.
However, key differences existed and not just the obvious ones -- that the quality of opponent and the inherent pressure of the situation were vastly varied.
Despite being a small country, Guatemala offered considerable resistance to the U.S. attack.
Part of the reason for that was the Guatemalan players' lack of compunction about unleashing every underhanded move in their arsenal to further their cause.
The U.S. squad's struggle to earn a 1-0 win over a team many observers considered vastly inferior to the Americans shows how effective those tactics are.
Ruiz (Guatemala's key striker, who drew one of the crucial fouls that sent Onyewu off) was unapologetic.
"Everyone tries to do their job and I did mine the best I could," said the FC Dallas striker, who can feign well the pain of a hard foul, instigate contact to draw a foul or even slip in a sneaky foul of his own when the referee isn't looking.
For his part, Ruiz observed that the Americans had made some important changes in their lineup since the last time they met, when Guatemala gutted out a scoreless tie in a friendly that was something of a symbolic victory for the Guatemalans.
"The team in Texas didn't have as many players with European experience," Ruiz said. "They didn't have Onyewu, they didn't have Bocanegra or Beasley or Tim Howard. They are players with a lot of experience."
U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who faced off against Ruiz many times while coaching against him in Major League Soccer, knew the wiles of the tricky forward.
Bradley observed that in fact, the particular European experience of some American players could have been a bit of a detriment, as players accustomed to the physical style of English soccer could easily be whistled here for moves against Ruiz that would go uncalled there.
"There was more physical play today and it's an adjustment for some players, because the games are different," Bradley said. "It's just making sure that they understand the opponent and the kind of games they're in."
These are CONCACAF matches against tough, hardscrabble squads who often consider gamesmanship something of an art.
Jay DeMerit had firsthand experience with that strategy, having dealt with Ruiz during the last tangle between Guatemala and the U.S.
"Ruiz does a good job of that," said DeMerit of the forward's ability to bait players and draw fouls. "He did that with both [Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra].You try to neutralize him as much as possible."
Although it's easy to say that good teams can ignore bad calls, that's exactly what the U.S. didn't manage well in the last World Cup. Players lost focus after questionable calls in matches against the Czech Republic and Ghana. The squad could not recuperate in time to change the outcome.
Even against lowly Guatemala, the sending-off of Onyewu left the U.S. team scrambling to compensate and maintain an attacking rhythm. This pleased Guatemalan coach Hernan Gomez.
"I like it," said the coach of watching the on-field discomfiture of the U.S. "It shows they want to win and keep working. I'd like them to go to World Cups and work like they do here in CONCACAF. They're our regional champions. They need to learn to keep their composure."
Eventually, despite the odds against them, the U.S. recovered and concentrated on pulling out the result versus Guatemala. It's that kind of bounce-back attitude that will be a key going forward.
"Whether you're playing in CONCACAF or the World Cup, you've got to have the same mentality," said midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
As long as CONCACAF rivals are up to their old tricks, the Americans will be better prepared to face whatever comes along the international competition pipeline.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.