Behind two goals from Clint Dempsey, the U.S. men’s national team overcame allowing an early goal against Guatemala on Tuesday night at Livestrong Sporting Park to advance to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Conventional wisdom had the U.S. and Guatemala taking a conservative approach to the match, but that early tally by the visitors ignited a first-half track meet that ended with the U.S. on top 3-1 — a result that would stand as coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad finished atop Group A.
“We didn’t want to do the minimum to get the result,” said Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, who was greeted with a familiar “Zeus” chant every time the ball found his feet. “We wanted to come out here and score some goals, really take it to them and win the game.”
During the fifth minute, Guatemala forward Carlos Ruiz stunned the U.S. faithful — and sent a small but mighty contingent of its fans into a tizzy – with fifth goal in six qualifying games.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra lost a footrace with Ruiz to midfielder Jose Contreras’ long service.
Tim Howard hesitated coming off his line, which allowed Ruiz to collect the pass and tap it forward as he eluded a dive from the Everton goalkeeper.
Ruiz, who announced his retirement from international soccer after the match, pegged Guatemala to a 1-0 lead with the outside of his right foot, but that joy was short-lived as Bocanegra atoned in historic fashion with an equalizer in the 10th minute.
“We knew we’d create chances,” former Wizards forward Eddie Johnson said. “You could just see the energy when we conceded the goal. Michael Bradley just saying, ‘Relax guys, we’re going to get our chances.’ I thought that positivity from him was contagious throughout the whole team.”
It was Zusi who picked out Dempsey at the near post with a corner kick, which the striker nodded across the face of goal to Bocanegra, who scored his 14th goal with the U.S. men — breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Marcelo Balboa for the most international goals by a U.S. defender.
Eight minutes later, and with an announced crowd of 16,947 still buzzing, Dempsey put the U.S. in front with a sliding goal off a low cross delivered by Johnson from the right wing.
Johnson, who scored both goals in a 2-1 win Friday, proved to be a dangerous force again throughout the night, which delighted his long-time friend Dempsey.
“Being able to come back to MLS, he’s regained his confidence and he’s at the level he was before,” Dempsey said. “You see him taking people on and creating chances. Just look at his performances in these two games. He got two (goals) against Antigua and had the game-winning assist tonight.”
Johnson’s impact after a two-year absence was a welcome sign as the U.S., which finished 4-1-1 and collected 13 points in winning Group A, closed the semifinal round of qualification with arguably its best performance in those six games.
“I was with him when he got the news that he wasn’t going to be on the roster for the last World Cup, and it broke his heart,” Dempsey said. “But it shows that people can bounce back. I’m proud of him.”
Dempsey notched his second goal, tying Brian McBride for third all-time among U.S. internationals with 30, when he redirected a shot from midfielder Michael Bradley at the far post.
With Jamaica leading 2-0 against Antigua and Barbuda at halftime, Guatemala knew it needed at least one goal and maybe more depending what happened in Kingston, but Guatemala — which was eliminated with the loss and Jamaica’s 4-1 win — never managed to solve the U.S. defense in the second half.
As expected, the Livestrong crowd, which seemed smaller based on the announced attendance because FIFA doesn’t permit standing room only sales and ESPN2’s broadcast eliminated seats in the Budweiser Patio, drew raves reviews.
“It was an awesome crowd — 16,000. If you’d have told me 40,000, I would have believed it,” Howard said. “It was fantastic, a good atmosphere and a great place to play. Hopefully, we can come back.”