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USA eases World Cup qualifying pressure as veterans come through

The U.S. scored early, veterans stepped up and the Americans got their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track with a rout of Guatemala, writes Brian Straus.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio—It took only 12 minutes Tuesday night for the U.S. national team to start feeling good again. Reeling from a troubling World Cup qualifying loss last Friday in Guatemala City, the Americans took an early lead on Clint Dempsey’s strike and coasted to an easy 4-0 triumph in the return match against Guatemala at Mapfre Stadium.

Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore capped the rout, and the three points put the USA's World Cup campaign back on track and should buy some more goodwill for coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who’s been under heavy criticism. 

Here are three thoughts from a game the U.S. sorely needed.

Columbus comes through once again

Every big game starts with a flyover, and Tuesday’s was no different. Except this flyover wasn’t sanctioned. The small plane pulling the “Fire Klinsmann” banner moments before kickoff symbolized the mood heading into Tuesday’s qualifier. Losers in Guatemala City and stuck in an eight-month rut, the U.S. was desperate for three points and an injection of confidence.

Historically, it’s typically found those things in Columbus, site of the country’s first soccer-specific stadium and the national team’s spiritual home. The Americans were 7-0-3 at Mapfre heading in, and four years ago they had arrived in a similar spot—coming off a surprising road defeat and 1-1-1 in the semifinal round. Once again, Columbus and the crowd did the job. Whomever paid for the banner was unable to counter the stadium’s potent mojo.

Captain Michael Bradley said this week that Columbus now has a “mystique.” Tuesday’s proceedings backed him up. The U.S. was blessed with a bit of good fortune before kickoff thanks to the first-half absence of Carlos Ruiz, who typically torments the Americans. He was unable to leave Guatemala before Tuesday morning thanks to a legal dispute. The luck continued in the 12th minute, when a long ball from Cameron bounced off Gyasi Zardes into Dempsey’s path.

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​Zardes had what appeared to be a second accidental assist just 18 seconds after halftime when he mis-trapped a pass from DeAndre Yedlin. The ball bounced off Zardes's own leg to Zusi, who wasn’t even on the original 26-man qualifying roster but then was called in over the weekend following the departure of the injured Fabian Johnson and Matt Besler. The Sporting Kansas City man finished off the play with ruthless aplomb.

Columbus Crew star Ethan Finlay made his qualifying debut in the 71st, much to the delight of most of the 20,624 fans in attendance, and 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund up-and-comer Christian Pulisic was cap-tied to the U.S. when he entered in the 81st. The Pennsylvanian also was eligible to play for Croatia through his grandfather. Everything went right.

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With two matches remaining in the semifinal round, the U.S. (2-1-1) now is almost certain to qualify for the final-round Hexagonal. Expect one of those games, likely the tilt against Mexico, to be scheduled for Ohio’s hospitable capital.

Three MLS veterans send a message

Klinsmann surely always will be enamored of speed and youth. He may always hope players choose to test themselves in Europe. But when the chips were down on Tuesday the manager called upon three MLS veterans who provided the structure, work-rate and finishing his team needed to bounce back from last week’s loss.

Dempsey, who missed a couple chances in Guatemala City and who’s international future has been a bit fuzzy in recent months, set the tone Tuesday with his emphatic 12th-minute goal. He read Cameron’s long pass perfectly, was there for the second ball after Zardes drew two Guatemalan defenders and hit his first-time shot from 15 yards out perfectly. It was his 14th career goal in qualifying, breaking Landon Donovan’s record. It also was a reminder that there still is no more reliable finisher in the player pool than the 33-year-old forward. He should play a pivotal role in this summer’s Copa América Centenario.

Kyle Beckerman, also 33, sat out Friday’s loss. Without him, the both the back four and the Americans’ possession game suffered. On Tuesday he played in front of Cameron and D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum and was vital in a system that required significant overlapping from the outside backs. Even if Beckerman didn’t win every ball, his presence was critical to the team’s overall shape while giving Bradley a bit more freedom to create. No one fills that role better than the Real Salt Lake captain.

Zusi meanwhile, is a smart, complementary player who was a vital cog in the 2014 World Cup team but lately seemed to be on the verge of being phased out. Likely in the lineup thanks to an ankle injury suffered by Alejandro Bedoya, Zusi hadn’t played for the U.S. since last summer’s Gold Cup. But he made the most of his latest opportunity on Tuesday night.

Sound structure makes the difference

Klinsmann said this week that Cameron and Yedlin were not playing out of position when they were deployed at right back and right midfield, respectively, in Guatemala. Technically the coach was right. They had played those positions before. But they’re both so much better where they were placed on Tuesday. Cameron was imperious in the middle alongside Birnbaum and contributed in the attack as well, setting up Dempsey’s opener and scoring the second goal on a header in the 36th. Yedlin, the right back, covered plenty of ground but also was effective defensively, showing significant improvement after regular minutes at Sunderland.

Beckerman’s well-defined role in midfield left less on Bradley’s plate. The captain always plays better when he doesn’t have to do everything or babysit a midfield partner. Bobby Wood and Zardes state stayed wide, spreading the Guatemalan defense and opening up the midfield for Dempsey to drop in to show for the ball.

Guatemala (2-2-0) offered little resistance, but this was a team that bottled up the U.S. last week and came into Columbus with every intention to bunker and counter. In response, Klinsmann sent out a team with balance that made the most of its players’ skills. When the he does that, a win is far more likely.