KANSAS CITY, Kansas — The U.S. wanted to put an exclamation point, not a question mark, on its final semifinal of men's soccer World Cup qualifying. So while they needed only a tie with Guatemala on Tuesday to continue down the road to Brazil 2014, the Americans were looking for quite a bit more.
And they wound up getting it, running out to a big halftime lead on two goals by Clint Dempsey and one by Carlos Bocanegra, then cruising to a 3-1 victory. The emphatic win, arguably the most dominant U.S. performance of the CONCACAF tournament, sends the Americans on to the six-team hexagonal round of qualifying next year as the champion of its group.
"At least we went out in style," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "It's a huge relief. We believed we would go through. We're just going to enjoy it."
Guatemala and Jamaica tied for second in the group with Jamaica advancing to the hexagonal on goal differential after beating Antigua and Barbuda, 4-1, in its group-play final.
"It's definitely a good way to end that first round and advance and make it clear that we're the No. 1 team in our group," Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "With every game you try to earn respect.
"You want to always make statements. You want to make statement of 'Hey, we are ready for whoever comes in.' "
Dogged by criticism of his underperforming team through much of the summer, Klinsmann promised to play aggressively from the start against Guatemala and the U.S. did, taking the ball into Guatemala's 18-yard box twice in the first two minutes. Still, it was the Central Americans who drew first blood when former Galaxy star Carlos Ruiz scored in the fifth minute, silencing many in the sellout crowd of 16,947 at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Jose Contreras' long through ball, which originated in the Guatemalan end, started the play by freeing Ruiz behind the U.S. defense up the left side. Ruiz then patiently dribbled around Howard before tapping the ball into the net with his right foot.
The U.S. needed only five minutes to get the equalizer, with Graham Zusi sending a corner toward the near post for Dempsey, who nodded it into the six-yard box. An unmarked Bocanegra collected it there and knocked the ball by goalkeeper Ricardo Jerez for his 14th goal with the national team, breaking Marcelo Balboa's record for goals by a defender.
"We got a quick goal to respond. That kind of lifted our spirits," forward Herculez Gomez said. "We showed a lot of character."
And although they didn't know it at the time, that goal pretty much ended Guatemala's World Cup hopes. Because when Eddie Johnson's low cross from the left side of the 18-yard box found the foot of a sliding Dempsey near the far post eight minutes later, the U.S. was ahead to stay.
The goal was Dempsey's fourth in six qualifying games but it wouldn't be his last, with the U.S. striker getting behind the short-handed defense again in the 36th minute, then using his left foot to nudge home a Michael Bradley shot that probably would have found the net even without Dempsey's help.
"We've got another round," Dempsey said. "Whether we play great, don't play great, we got the job done. Next round we need to be better."