KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The primary objective for the United States against Guatemala was a win or at worst a draw, and squeaking through to the next round of World Cup qualifying.
It wasn’t the only goal.
Jurgen Klinsmann revealed a much more ruthless motive in Tuesday night’s 3-1 victory that allowed the U.S. to win Group A and advance to the six-team finals in North and Central America and the Caribbean: The second-year manager wanted to send a message to the rest of the world.
“With every game you try to earn respect. It’s what you do,” Klinsmann said. “Quite frankly, every qualifying game and every competition you try always to earn respect.
“You know in soccer that everybody is watching you,” Klinsmann continued, his words picking up speed. “In South America, they’re watching you. Russia will watch us, what we’re doing here, so you always want to make statements. You want to send statements out and say, ‘We’re ready for you.’ We want to go to Mexico and say, ‘We want to beat you there.’ Every game.”
It hasn’t always been pretty so far, but the pugnacious attitude of Klinsmann finally appears to have seeped into the psyche of a U.S. team drilled in defense by former coach Bob Bradley.
Even when Guatemala charged to a 1-0 lead in the opening minutes on a defensive breakdown by the American back line, it only seemed to stoke their passion. They answered a few minutes later when former Maryland standout Graham Zusi’s corner kick was redirected by Clint Dempsey and to the waiting foot of Carlos Bocanegra, who tapped it in for the equalizer.
The U.S. quickly increased the pressure from there.
Eddie Johnson corralled a pass on the wing and sent a low cross to Dempsey, who put the ball in the back of the net over the outstretched hand of the sliding Guatemalan goalkeeper. And later in the half, Michael Bradley’s deft pass set up Dempsey for his second goal of the game.
The U.S., facing elimination for only the second time in the past five World Cup cycles, never let up in the second half. Dempsey just missed with a header that would have given him a hat trick, and a couple of other shots were stopped by Ricardo Jerez Jr. to keep the game reasonably close.
Not close enough for Guatemala, though. Jamaica’s 4-1 victory of Antigua and Barbuda allowed it to squeeze into the final round on goal differential along with the Americans. They’ll be joined by heavily favored Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama.
“We know that there is still a lot of work to be done. We know that we can be better and sharpen up in order to qualify for the World Cup,” Dempsey said. “We know the next round is going to be tough. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that we’re ready for it.”
Klinsmann called the next round a “grind,” 10 matches beginning in late March that will set the field for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil interspersed throughout a busy year.
The American team will have several friendlies scheduled to tune up for their international matches and also have to balance a roster for the Gold Cup, which runs from July 7-28.
The U.S. advanced through the group stage of the regional championship last year with a 2-1-0 record. The Americans defeated Jamaica 2-0 and Panama 1-0 to reach the final against Mexico, which it lost 4-2 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. — a defeat that in part led to Bradley’s ouster.
“We don’t know yet how we’re going to manage that,” Klinsmann said of his rosters for the two tournaments. “It boils down to how their own schedule looks like, what league do they play in, what do those schedules look like. You know, we have to put that puzzle together.”
Klinsmann acknowledged it’s not an easy puzzle to solve, but it’s a welcome one.
He’s been trying to build depth since taking over 15 months ago, pulling in young and untested players such as Zusi and giving guys such as Johnson a second chance. The moves have finally begun to pay off after a couple of ragged games, including a loss at Jamaica and a narrow win last Friday in Antigua that kept the Americans off the brink of failing to qualify for the World Cup.
Now, it’s a matter of finding out which players in Klinsmann’s pool best fit together and making sure the confidence gained Friday night only builds heading into a busy 2013 schedule.
“Something you have to repeat to the players all the time is every game starts nil-nil,” he said, “and you have to have the right attitude, the right spirit for it, the right approach, and match the opponent right away with that fighting spirit, otherwise you’re going to look bad.”