Soccer America
Wednesday August 20th, 2008

Not too long ago, the U.S. hung a big number on Guatemala, but by all indications it won't happen Wednesday in Guatemala City when the nations kick off the semifinal round of CONCACAF 2010 World Cup qualifying (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and Galavision). The U.S. has won only once in nine trips to the Central American nation of 13 million people, and that lone 1-0 victory came 20 years ago on a goal by Jeff Agoos, a rarity indeed. It tied 0-0 three years ago and 1-1 in 2000 on its last two qualifying visits.

"It's incredibly difficult," says Landon Donovan of playing in Estadio Mateo Flores, which he did in that 2005 scoreless draw. "The time I was there, we had already qualified, but they hadn't. They had everything to play for and you could sense it and feel it. They were very tough on that day. It's not that they're overly talented. They have a few players who can make a difference and rest of them are just solid, but they just come at you. If you can imagine, every one of their players plays their best game of the year in these qualifiers and especially against the U.S. It's loud and they're spurred on by their crowd and it's emotional and they play very well in those circumstances."

The teams also tied, 0-0, in March '07, at Pizza Hut Park. Guatemala might have been peeved at a 4-0 defeat inflicted at the same venue the year before.

"We didn't play well and they actually played well," recalls Donovan. "There might have been a lot of Guatemalans there but it's going to be nothing like Mateo Flores."

One could say the same about the last meeting. Clint Dempsey scored the only goal when the Americans beat Guatemala at Home Depot Center during the '07 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Former Crew attacker Mario Rodríguez played only the last 19 minutes and striker Dwight Pezzarossi sat out that game; both of them scored a week ago as Guatemala beat Bolivia, 3-0, at RFK Stadium in a final tune-up match for the semifinal phase of qualifying.

"There are no easy games, and we know that Guatemala is a very difficult team to play against at home," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who will coach the national team team in Central America for the first time. "It's important that we start off the semifinal round in a positive way, and we are confident the work from the last 18 months has prepared us for the task."

Twelve teams have been divided into three groups and each team plays its group rivals twice. The Americans travel to Havana on Sept. 6 to face Cuba and host Trinidad & Tobago four days later, then play the return legs in October and November.

"With only six games, the margin for error is a lot smaller," says Donovan. "And starting with two away games isn't ideal. If you stumble and don't get anything out of even one of those games, it puts that much more pressure on you."

Bradley selected four players fresh off a three-week stay in Asia for the Olympic Games. Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan and Sacha Kljestan gathered with the team in Miami before it flew to Guatemala City; Maurice Edu took a side trip to Scotland to finalize his transfer to Glasgow Rangers before joining up with his teammates.

"That's going to be a task in itself is getting them physically to get over it, but mentally to forget about what went on in China," says Donovan, who believes dealing with the opponents is only one facet of getting a result in hostile conditions. "The biggest obstacle is getting everyone to just play soccer. When you just play, talent will usually come through, but if you can't match their intensity, if you can't match their aggression, if you can't mentally be prepared and stay in the game during the game, you have a chance to lose. If they grab you and pull you and spit on you and bite you, and you react and you get a red card, you're out of the game. Now they have a chance to win."

Guatemala has never qualified for the World Cup and only twice in the last five cycles, dating back to qualifying for the 1990 competition, has it reached the final phase. It lost a playoff to Costa Rica, 5-2, in Miami after finishing tied for second place with the Ticos in their semifinal group of '02 qualifying.

Three years ago, it fell two points short of fourth place and a playoff spot in the Hexagonal. Instead, Trinidad & Tobago beat Bahrain to qualify for the first time. Guatemalans dream of this being their time. The team is coached by Honduran Ramón Maradiaga, who played for his country at the 1982 World Cup.

"The people have been waiting a very long time," Maradiaga said to the Washington Post. "Soccer brings great joy to the country, but nothing could ever compare to playing in the World Cup."

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