It should have been the kind of match that makes international football great: an exotic locale, a raucous venue, an inspired underdog, and the World Cup barely visible in the distance on the CONCACAF landscape. Instead, violent play from both sides, though most notably from Guatemala, tainted an otherwise sloppy, but exciting contest.
The United States recorded their first World Cup Qualifying victory in Guatemala on the backs of a 69th minute Carlos Bocanegra header. Bocanegra guided in a corner kick from DaMarcus Beasley to give the United States the lead just minutes after both a Steve Cherundolo red card (second yellow) and a straight red to Guatemala D Gustavo Cabrera for a vicious diving elbow to the head of Eddie Lewis. Although Guatemala would pressure American keeper Tim Howard the rest of the match, the USA managed to hang on for the first-leg victory. The American players looked impacted by the hostile environment and jetlag from their international travels, often displaying poor touch and questionable passing (even stellar Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard’s kicking was off). Furthermore, the lack of a quality attacking option remains blatant. Brian Ching holds up play well and is decent in the air, but Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey provided few threats to the Guatemala goal.
Overshadowing the actual soccer was the shamefully dirty play. While most of the late shoving and desperate atttempts from the US were retaliatory, Guatemala did whatever they could to intimidate or flatout injure the American players. Cabrera’s flying elbow was simply the nadir of a display that included Carlos Ruiz kicking Tim Howard in the head, plenty of body checks and takedowns, a Guatemalan defender kicking at Carlos Bocanegra during his goal celebration and defender Yony Flores attempting to attack a US coach after the match.
Though I had heard about the hostility of Central American opponents, I had never seen the United States in a football streetfight until their match with Guatemala. Poor CONCACAF officiating only compounded the needless aggression that Guatemala apparently felt they needed to utilize in order to have a chance against one of the federation’s juggernauts. While I had been thinking about how weak qualifying competition gave the United States a disadvantage once they reached large tournaments like the World Cup and Olympics, I now know that at the very least, the Red, White, and Blue are mentally prepared to take on all comers.