GUATEMALA CITY — The U.S. put on an embarrassing display in a World Cup qualifier, losing to lightly regarded Guatemala 2-0 on Friday in one of the most dismal performances in the five-year tenure of coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The hosts scored twice in the opening 15 minutes—once off a corner kick and once off a goal kick down the middle—and ended a 21-game winless streak against the U.S. that dated back to 1988.
The loss left the U.S. (four points) in third place in its semifinal round qualifying group, behind Trinidad and Tobago (seven) and Guatemala (six). The U.S. has to finish in the top two to advance to the final-round Hexagonal and now has three games to do it, starting with Tuesday's qualifier against Guatemala in Columbus, Ohio.
Here are my three thoughts on the game:
This was bad from the U.S. across the board
There was plenty of blame for Rafael Morales's seventh-minute goal, from Edgar Castillo's awful backpass that led to the corner kicks, to Mix Diskerud's soft-as-Charmin marking, to Tim Howard's too-slow reaction to the shot.
Nor can it ever be excused when you let a team send a goal kick down the middle for 85-year-old Carlos Ruiz to score (O.K., he's 36).
But there was more to the mess than that. The U.S. continually booted the ball downfield, struggling to possess the ball, and had trouble maintaining composure. Guatemala shouldn't be good enough for this to happen, and yet it did.
Klinsmann should and will face the heat
It was one thing for the U.S. to have a bad 2015, but it's an even bigger problem when you start to throw World Cup qualification into question. Klinsmann made several head-scratching decisions on Friday. He started the overmatched Diskerud in central midfield (instead of Kyle Beckerman, Geoff Cameron, Darlington Nagbe or Lee Nguyen). He started Howard in goal over Brad Guzan, even though Guzan has been playing at club level and Howard hasn't since January 24. And Klinsmann continues to defy logic and play guys out of position, from Cameron to DeAndre Yedlin to Michael Orozco.
The players deserve their share of the blame—captain Michael Bradley wasn't sharp either—but Klinsmann is now presiding over a team that has been slouching in the wrong direction for far too long.
The U.S. still has some wiggle room
A home win against Guatemala on Tuesday would still likely put the U.S. in second place by a point over the Chapines with highly winnable qualifiers left at home against Trinidad and at lowly St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact, the current situation is eerily similar to the one in this round four years ago, when the U.S. lost at Jamaica and faced a near-must-win game at home against the Reggae Boyz. That, too, was in Columbus, and the Americans found a way to get three points.
They'll need that to happen again in Ohio on Tuesday. Qualifying for World Cups is never guaranteed, and there's less margin for error in the six-game semifinal round than there is in the 10-game Hex. After a brutal night here, the U.S. is in a dogfight it never expected to be in. Tuesday's a big one. Near must-win.