(Friday, June 8, 2007) -- The United States men opened the Gold Cup with a 1-0 victory over Guatemala last night, but only by the narrowest of margins over an opponent they should have brushed aside with ease. While there seldom was a feeling the Americans were in trouble, there was certainly a sense that they made things more difficult for themselves than needed to be.
At The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the U.S. should have emerged from the first half with a two- or three-goal lead, but it had to settle for a Clint Dempsey conversion of a fine cross by Taylor Twellman in the 26th minute. In the second half, Guatemala put the Americans on their heels with physical play. Once defender Oguchi Onyewu was sent off for his second yellow card in the 73rd minute, the U.S. had to struggle to hold on for the victory.
The U.S. opened with its strongest lineup with only mild surprises in veteran Frankie Hejduk starting at left back instead of Jonathan Spector because he has more pace and Twellman getting a starting nod over Eddie Johnson, who had been red-hot having scored three goals in each of his last two outings in Major League Soccer.
The U.S. opened in a traditional 4-4-2 with Landon Donovan out far on the right side of midfield to give the attack more width, while Dempsey was supposedly running up front with Twellman. Dempsey, however, is much more comfortable as a midfielder and so he played in a withdrawn position all night, leaving Twellman as the only real forward. Even Twellman dropped back into the midfield at times, leaving the U.S. no one up top.
Guatemala's best hope tonight was to duplicate the 0-0 result when it bunkered in on defense when the two nations met March 28 in Dallas. That was the Chapines' plan last night until Dempsey came up with his timely tally. Guatemala kept eight players behind the ball and plugged up the middle. But that strategy became moot when Beasley flicked a header to Twellman, running well without the ball down the left flank. Twellman carried deep before cutting a pass back to the advancing Dempsey for an easy strike.
"Guatemala is a well-organized team. We saw that when we played them in Dallas," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We feel good that we improved in some areas from the last time we played them. We did a better job of attacking wide. We definitely did a better job of finding some spaces that we didn't find the last time."
After the U.S. jumped ahead, the match opened up, allowing the Americans more room. Twellman, Beasley, Donovan and Dempsey all had golden chances over the final 15 minutes of the first half, but a combination of poor finishing and two good saves by Ricardo Alberto Trigueño kept the margin at one goal.
The second half was very physical with neither side creating many chances. Then, Onyewu committed his second thoughtless cautionable foul and was ejected, leaving the Americans to reorganize their defense and struggle through the match's final minutes.
Guatemala does not figure to be one of the stronger teams in CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbeean, this World Cup cycle. Guatemala almost made it to 2006 World Cup in Germany, but now the team just seems older, not better.
The Chapines' do have a strong coach in Colombian Hernan Dario Gomez, who previously has coached his country and last summer took Ecuador to Germany 2006. But his team has only two non-domestic players -- striker Carlos Ruiz, who play's for FC Dallas in Major League Soccer, and defender Pablo Melgar, who plays for Antofagasta in Chile -- with most of his players coming from Liga Nacional 2006-07 champion Comunicaciones and third-place Municipal.
"We hoped for more goals, but again I think credit goes to Guatemala for doing a very good job in terms of organizing their team," Bradley said.
The U.S. got the result needed to pursue a defense of its 2005 Gold Cup title, but there was also plenty for Bradley to be concerned about.
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 6: He was required to make two tough saves and he made them with ease. Otherwise, he faced little pressure.
Defender Frankie Hejduk - 6: The veteran showed he still is speedy and has the ability to get forward and attack effectively without giving up anything at the back. Helped compensate for the loss of Onyewu to his red card.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 5: He had his hands full all night with Ruiz, but did well. However, he still seemed not to have learned that his size will cause him to have fouls called against him when a smaller player might get away with a similar transgression. Both his yellow cards and thus his expulsion came as the result of completely unnecessary fouls.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 6: Generally, he had a solid match. He had a few problems keeping up with some Guatemalans, but did well in tandem with Onyewu.
Defender Jonathan Bornstein - 5.5: He mixed some good plays with mistakes, highlighting his inexperience, just as was the case in Saturday's 4-1 triumph over China.
Midfielder Landon Donovan - 5: Was moved wide right in a effort to spread out the American offense beyond the crowded but as is too often the case, he disappeared for long stretches and was generally ineffective.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 5.5: He had much more the role of a defensive midfielder than usual, but did fine, although he is still not at the level needed from the position.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber - 5.5: He was forced into a more defensive posture tonight. If his role is the link defense with offense, he still has a long way to go.
Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley - 6.5: An offensive threat all night, his flicked header sprang Twellman for a run that led to his decisive assist. His experience and knowledge of the game are needed badly by this young team.
Forward Clint Dempsey - 6.5: The best U.S. player tonight, he seems more mature and more comfortable coming out of the midfield. He is growing into a key contributor.
Forward Taylor Twellman - 6: In stride, he made a perfect pass for an assists on Dempsey's tally, but wasted several chances, including a point-blank header at a gaping net. Not a complete game, but a pretty good one.
Forward Eddie Johnson (61st minute for Dempsey ) - 4.5: Coming off his six goals in his last two MLS games with the Kansas City Wizards, he again was a disappointment on the international level. In MLS, he brims with confidence and is constantly attacking and taking on players. Tonight, he was timid and hesitant. Johnson clearly has the ability, but one of Bradley's biggest challenges is to evoke an effort resembling his in MLS.
Midfielder Steve Ralston (71st minute for Twellman) - 6: He provided a terrific defensive effort once the U.S. went down to 10 men two minutes after he entered.
Defender Jay DeMerit (81st minute for Feilhaber) - 6.5: He was rushed into the center of a defense in disarray and quickly settled things down.
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