GUATEMALA CITY -- It wasn't pretty, but World Cup qualifiers in Central America never are.
When Steve Cherundolo was sent off after a second yellow card in the 60th minute, the U.S. team suddenly found itself facing 30 minutes with a man down in front of a hostile crowd, against an inspired opponent. The signs of an upset hung in the air, threatening to overwhelm the U.S.
"We looked at the clock and there was a long time left so we were going to have to defend for a long time," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We've been resilient and we showed that against Argentina as well. We've figured out ways to make a block of eight and fight through that time. It's not always easy. That's when we got let off the hook."
They were let off the hook when Guatemalan defender Gustavo Cabrera drew a red card for a late challenge on U.S. midfielder Eddie Lewis that resulted in Lewis leaving the match with a cut over his right eye. The ejection erased the man advantage and seemed to give the U.S. team some much-needed energy.
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It also helped pave the way for DaMarcus Beasley to take the field and make an instant impact. The speedy winger not only helped set up Carlos Bocanegra's winning goal with a perfect curling corner kick, but Beasley's pace on the left flank helped neutralize Guatemala's main source of attacking menace.
Bolstered by another top-shelf performance from Howard, the U.S. defense made Bocanegra's goal stand up by neutralizing a Guatemalan offense that looked so dangerous early in the second half, led by some runs from MLS castoff Mario Rodriguez.
"Their right winger had done a good job," Lewis said of Rodriguez. "I think he was by far their most direct attacker up the wing and I think he was having a lot of success getting behind us."
"It helped us a great deal when we brought DaMarcus Beasley in," Bradley said. "He did a very good job of working with Heath Pearce and helping to make that situation better."
Beasley's defensive work, as well as better possession from the Americans in the final 20 minutes, helped kill off a game that will never be confused with an example of quality attacking soccer. The Americans basically found themselves in a street fight and showed enough heart to win in hostile territory.
"Although probably everybody would assume that we're the strong team of the group and everything else, we haven't won here in 20 years and there's a reason for that," Lewis said. "It was a quick reminder for everybody tonight that these qualifiers are tough. They're hard games and it was a testament to the player's efforts tonight and it's a great result."
Lewis' words helped provide some perspective on a match that wasn't likely to please many American fans from an aesthetic standpoint. While you can certainly criticize the U.S. team for being outplayed by Guatemala for the first 60 minutes of the match, you must also credit it for withstanding that onslaught and taking control of a game that looked like it might overwhelm the Americans.
No, it wasn't pretty, but an ugly win beats a loss any day of the week.
"It was not a game where I think our soccer was ...," Bradley said before stopping just short of saying something critical about his team's performance. "It was a game where we relied much more on the effort of the team and the team spirit, and that was the most important thing for us in a very hard game."
That's what stands out from Wednesday night's victory even more than the concerns about the play of players such as Lewis, Heath Pearce, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo. For all the individual struggles, the team came together and found a way to win a game they could have easily lost in a country where the United States had not won in 20 years.
There's nothing ugly about that.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Tim Howard, 8 -- The U.S. team's best player, Howard made clutch saves, dominated the penalty area and kept the Americans in a game that could have got out of control.
Heath Pearce, 4 -- When he wasn't getting torched by Mario Rodriguez straight up, he was getting caught in bad positions. A far cry from his quality performances earlier this summer, making you wonder if the door hasn't been opened for Jonathan Bornstein to come back in and take the left back spot.
Steve Cherundolo, 4 -- Silly yellow cards cost Cherundolo and could have cost U.S. team three points. He wasn't having a great game even before the second yellow.
Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- Essentially kept Carlos Ruiz under wraps most of the match. He cleared away countless crosses and never really look troubled
Carlos Bocanegra, 7 -- Scored the game winner with a free header and played tough defense, though he did look shaky at times.
Landon Donovan, 5 -- Largely invisible in the first half, Donovan provided some important defensive work in the second half. Not exactly the contribution you expect from your best attacking player, though he did draw a foul that set up a dangerous chance for Onyewu.
Michael Bradley, 6 -- Key to helping control the middle of the field, Bradley won a fair share of challenges and moved the ball well. He made some key challenges in the second half, though he did commit some unforced turnovers that he needs to eliminate.
Pablo Mastroeni, 5 -- Looked reckless at times in the first half, but settled down in the second half and played a steadier game before being replaced by Edu.
Eddie Lewis, 5 -- Was shut down by Gustavo Cabrera for much of the match, while also providing little in the way of defensive support for Heath Pearce on Mario Rodriguez. Grade might have been lower but he did draw the red card foul on Cabrera that changed the game.
Brian Ching, 5 -- Was rendered invisible in a game where the U.S. team was overrun on the flanks, leaving him without service. He did very well in the final 20 minutes to track back and help maintain possession.
Clint Dempsey, 4 -- Another lifeless performance from Dempsey, who showed some glimpses but was largely ineffective.
DaMarcus Beasley, 7 -- Changed the game completely when he came in and essentially stifled Mario Rodriguez, who had torched the U.S. left flank before he arrived. He didn't start because he's just recovering from a hamstring injury, but Beasley showed why he's the first-choice left winger when healthy.
Frankie Hejduk, 5 -- Provided his usual energy and fearlessness off the bench. Considering the shocker Cherundolo was having, Hejduk provided an upgrade at right back.
Maurice Edu, NR -- U.S. team's last sub looked very composed in central midfield and played well for someone who has circled the globe in recent days, traveling from China to Scotland to Guatemala.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.