U.S. soccer team can't afford loss to Guatemala

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Juergen Klinsmann took over a stagnant U.S. men's soccer program 15 months ago, he promised to bring change. And so far he has delivered, although not all the changes have been necessarily for the better.

In 19 games as coach, he has changed the starting lineup 19 times, for example. And the team has more losses and has scored fewer goals through 19 games than those of his predecessors, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena.

But here's perhaps the most unwelcome change of all: for only the second time in the last five World Cup cycles, the U.S. will go into the final round of semifinal qualifiers Tuesday night facing the possibility of elimination.

Much remains unsettled, in fact, although a U.S. victory over Guatemala (ESPN 2, Telefutura, 4 p.m. PDT) in Kansas City, Kan., would simplify things greatly because with a victory the U.S. would win its four-country group and move on to next year's final round of CONCACAF qualifying.

And a tie wouldn't be bad either. That would allow the U.S. and Guatemala to share the group title with both advancing to the next round.

Should the U.S. lose, however, that would leave open the possibility that Jamaica could sneak by the Americans, knocking them out of the World Cup with a convincing victory over winless Antigua and Barbuda. That's a scenario few considered realistic when the semifinals began four months ago.

"It's coming down to the last game and we're not qualified for the next stages yet," said captain Carlos Bocanegra, who never faced the possibility of elimination this early in two previous qualifying campaigns. "If we don't pass this group, we're not going to the World Cup. And it doesn't seem like that would happen to the United States.

"But whatever. We're in this situation at the moment. Everybody knows this is the real deal now. We can't have any more mess-ups."

Both teams will be short-handed Tuesday. Guatemala will be without defenders Carlos Gallardo and Luis Rodriguez, who helped hold the U.S. to a 1-1 tie in June, and the U.S. is without left backs Edgar Castillo (foot) and Fabian Johnson (stomach), midfielder Brek Shea (stomach muscle), forward Landon Donovan (knee) and midfielder Jermaine Jones (yellow card accumulation).

Yet, despite the fact a draw would benefit both teams, Klinsmann is eschewing a conservative approach, promising to play an attacking game. And he expects Guatemala will do the same.

"They will be very, very physical. They will run and fight for every ball," Klinsmann said of Guatemala, which hasn't beaten the U.S. in 17 games dating to January 1988. "It's the game of their life, really. We respect them. But ... our whole approach to the game is clear: We want to win this game. And you can only win a game if you attack and go forward.

"We're not just here for a tie."


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