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COLUMBUS, Ohio—Early Monday afternoon, about three hours before the Guatemalan national team was scheduled to practice here at Mapfre Stadium, word came via the federation’s Twitter account that ageless striker and U.S. bogeyman Carlos Ruiz would be in Ohio and available to play in Tuesday’s critical World Cup qualifier.
It was unclear initially how the legal issue that was supposed to have confined the 36-year-old to Guatemala was resolved. Then it was unclear it ever was. Less than two hours later, the Federación Nacional de Fútbol de Guatemala deleted the tweet and replaced it with a notice that paperwork was still pending. If Ruiz shows up, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. If the first tweet was just a bit of gamesmanship, that also shouldn’t really come as a surprise. In qualifying, especially in CONCACAF, it’s best to expect the unexpected.
“You can think about what someone’s going to do, but on game day, it’s always going to be different. It’s like a fight. You don’t even know what’s going to happen until you’re out there,” U.S. veteran Clint Dempsey said.
The Americans hadn’t lost to Guatemala since 1988 and certainly didn’t expect to go down to defeat last Friday. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and a couple players have admitted they were “shocked” when Los Chapines scored twice in the first 15 minutes. It’s hard to imagine many were anticipating the scenario in which the U.S. (1-1-1) now finds itself—trailing second-place Guatemala (2-1-0) by two points in their four-team group and facing a must-win rematch on Tuesday. Assuming Trinidad and Tobago (2-0-1) beats lowly St. Vincent and the Grenadines (0-3-0), defeat would leave Klinsmann’s team five points behind Guatemala with only two matches remaining. A draw won’t make things much easier.
“There’s no script. There’s no telling how things go and you have to be ready for that. That can’t faze you,” captain Michael Bradley said Monday. “Just because we talk about a good response and taking care of things in the right way tomorrow night, there’s no telling what can happen so we’ve got to be ready for that. We’ve go to understand that. That’s what I mean when I say guys have to be fearless and embrace that.”
There now is only one certainty for the U.S. A trip to Russia in 2018 may hang in the balance.
“There’s a sense of urgency tomorrow night because we need three points now,” Klinsmann said. “We need to win this game.”
To do so, the U.S. will have to be more focused from the opening whistle, tighter at the back and more ruthless in the opposition penalty area. The Americans created enough scoring chances to recover and earn at least a tie in Guatemala City but failed to make the most of them.
“I had two, probably should’ve gotten one [goal] from the two,” Dempsey said. “We’ve just got to put the ball in the back of the net.”
Many outside the dressing room, however, have put the onus on Klinsmann. File his personnel choices with the rest of the “expected unexpected” that’s a hallmark of World Cup qualifying. On Friday, Michael Orozco started alongside Omar Gonzalez at center back despite playing sparingly for Club Tijuana. That pushed Geoff Cameron to right back, which nudged DeAndre Yedlin to the wing. Throw in Mix Diskerud’s discomfort with the defensive, tackling and tracking responsibilities of a box-to-box midfielder, and you had a lineup that looked out of sorts from the start.
Klinsmann defended that deployment on Monday.
“In World Cup qualifying, we’re not experimenting anything. We played the best 11 that we think in that moment is the best 11,” he said. “I appreciate the discussion when we say maybe Yedlin should be playing right back or Geoff Cameron should play center back, but it would also be helpful if you look back a second to where they play in their clubs and also what their history is with the U.S. national team. I’m not playing anybody out of position. I know that Geoff Cameron can play right back and center back. I know Yedlin can play right wing or right back. This is a good thing for us to have, because we try to put the pieces together the best way possible in order for them to fit.”
Klinsmann continued, “I’m not playing anybody out of position. We are aware of the situation that we have to get the result tomorrow night. I think everybody knows that. We analyzed our mistakes that we did in Guatemala City and hopefully correct them and give everybody a really good game tomorrow night.”
Already absent the injured Fabian Johnson, John Brooks and Matt Besler, the U.S. may have to take the field Tuesday without Alejandro Bedoya as well. The midfielder was suffering from a “sore ankle”, according to a U.S. Soccer spokesperson, thanks to a knock taken early in Friday’s game.
Gyasi Zardes, Lee Nguyen and recent arrival Graham Zusi are among the potential replacements.
As usual, however, it’s almost impossible to predict what Klinsmann will decide to do. He said last week that Tim Howard and Brad Guzan each would play a game in net, meaning it’s the latter’s turn on Tuesday. Will Cameron shift back inside? Will Darlington Nagbe, who sparked the U.S. in the second half in Guatemala City, get the opportunity to start? Dempsey, for one, lauded the Timbers playmaker on Monday, saying, “I like how he can run with the ball. I like how he can dribble out of situations. I like how he can beat the first man and then also find the pass.”
Those qualities will be useful to a U.S. team that will want to set the tone early and put Guatemala on the back foot. But with Klinsmann, one never knows.
Meanwhile, what U.S. players can feel confident in is that they’ve been in here before in more ways than one. Dempsey and Bradley referenced a pair of pivotal qualifiers during the 2014 cycle—one was in Columbus and the other was against Guatemala—that the Americans felt they needed to win. And they did so. The U.S. will feel confident playing at Mapfre Stadium, where it is 7-0-3 all-time. Bradley said the facility now has a “mystique.” And there’s confidence simply being on home soil. The U.S. is 26-0-2 in home World Cup qualifying games since falling to Honduras 15 years ago. Bradley and Co. have to hope that history, rather than their recent run of form, is what informs the proceedings on Tuesday.
They can’t control whether Ruiz plays or if Guatemala prioritizes bunkering or gamesmanship. They know events might not transpire as planned. But they have a say over their own approach, mentality and discipline. They know what's at stake Tuesday and what the game will require. They've met that challenge before.
“All of these experiences along the way, you use to help you get through and obviously we have enough players who have been through qualifying before, who know these twists and turns along the way are part of it,” Bradley said. “You can’t be scared of that. You have to understand that somewhere along the way, maybe twice, you’re playing a game where your lives depend on it and certainly that’s the case for us tomorrow night. The response has to be right. We’ve got to have 11 guys, plus subs, who are ready to step on the field in a big game and go for it in a fearless way and be ready to do everything to make sure that when that whistle blows at the end, we have three points.”