Jan. 10, 1988. That was the last time the United States men’s national team had lost to Guatemala, the 95th-ranked team in the world.
Three days later, the Americans won the rematch. And over the following 28 years and 21 games, the Yanks would never lose to the Chapines again. Not even in the five games played on Guatemalan soil.
But on Friday night, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men were defeated 2-0 in Guatemala City at the resumption of their World Cup qualifying campaign. This humiliating and disheartening loss to a team that had won just three of its 16 games last year – and whose domestic soccer scene is a shambles – drops the Americans out of the two spots in Group C that ensure a place in the fifth and final qualifying round, the so-called “hexagonal,” halfway through their slate of matches.
Three games into their campaign to reach an eighth consecutive World Cup in Russia in 2018, the Americans are 1-1-1, following a 6-1 win over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and a 0-0 stalemate in Trinidad and Tobago back in November. Three qualifiers remain in this round.
In just the seventh minute, the U.S. gave away two clumsy corner kicks in a row with sloppy play. On the second of those, Mix Diskerud allowed Rafael Morales to nudge him away and his header bounced off the American midfielder’s back, past goalkeeper Tim Howard and into the net.
Then, after a quarter of an hour, captain Michael Bradley headed Paulo Motta’s goal kick backwards, sending Carlos Ruiz clear through the inattentive American defense, which was nowhere near Guatemala’s sole striker. The 36-year-old Fish, so nicknamed, finished coolly when faced with Howard one-on-one, slipping the ball through his legs.
For a while, the U.S. would shake off its lethargy, find its bearings and begin forging changes, but the Americans never got back into the game. Clint Dempsey unlocked Guatemala’s barbed-wire defense in the 23rd minute with a wonderful ball over the top, but Alejandro Bedoya put his finish right at Motta.
n the second half, Motta denied Dempsey twice and Bedoya once again, all from close range. Then, around the hour mark, Klinsmann inserted attackers Gyasi Zardes and Jozy Altidore in favor of defenders in his desperation to produce more chances. But it didn’t result in very many scoring opportunities, as the indomitable Motta only had to kick away Altidore’s wide-open look.
The wily Chapines made the game physical and slowed the increasingly frustrated Americans at every turn, keeping them from building up much of a rhythm. It was, in all, a guileless and mirthless and feckless performance by the U.S. This umpteenth disheartening display infuriated plenty of the team’s suffering partisans, who inflamed Twitter with their bile.
Because this American soccer malpractice hardly happened in a vacuum. It came in the wake of a desperately disappointing fourth place at the 2015 Gold Cup, a pair of friendly losses to Brazil and Costa Rica, and an extra-time defeat to archrival Mexico in a playoff for a spot at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Even the earlier qualifying results belie problematic outings. Yes, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was dispatched by five goals, but the part-timers from an island of just 103,000 citizens – a mere speck on the global soccer map – actually went ahead, a feat that should have left the Americans fairly embarrassed. Meanwhile, T&T, not exactly world-beaters either, didn’t have much trouble with the U.S.
The loss to Guatemala, which only just squeezed by puny Antigua and Barbuda in the last round to even get here, was merely the latest underperformance in a long string of them. Were there mitigating circumstances? Certainly. Possible starting central defenders Matt Besler and John Brooks were scratched with a concussion and an injury, respectively. And playing in Central America is never not daunting and taxing.
Yet lately, we always seem to have to circle back to the excuses. It’s become so rare now that the Americans just play as they’re supposed to – let alone overachieve in a game that actually matters. Not since their opener at the 2014 World Cup have the Yanks managed to coax a noteworthy win from one of their more meaningful games.
None of this serves to alleviate the building pressure on Klinsmann, even though the belief in him from U.S. Soccer appears to remain bafflingly absolute. It’s easy to overreact to single results, but the sample size of disjointed displays of a team with no apparent identity, discernible spirit or visible tactical plan is getting quite large.
The German is closing in on his half-decade anniversary in charge of the U.S., yet on his long march to an improved senior national team, one that might finally compete at a World Cup, there have mostly been stumbles, trip-ups and falls. Sure, there has been a half-dozen friendly wins away at high-profile opponents, but those haven’t bought the U.S. much when the games were for real.
On Tuesday, the USMNT gets a chance to set things right against Guatemala in Columbus, Ohio. Klinsmann had said publicly that he hoped to clinch a place in the final round of qualifying by then. Instead, the Americans face a must-win situation. And so does their head coach’s credibility.