By Jacob Klinger
Soccer may be the truest of team sports.
Teams of eleven men play with one ball that none of them will control half the time. Yet they all must move as a unit, either in pursuit, attack, defense or panic.
Within those collective movements lie more individualized battles, constantly threatening to break open a match or at least change them in a way that stretches beyond the mathematical proportions of a mere handful of men among the 22 on the field.
But soccer is not math.
Indeed, what goes on inside the Estadio Mateo Flores Tuesday night will defy any rational equation. At the same time, the encounter between the U.S. and Guatemala will be a soccer match, one very much hanging in the balance of a few private battles.
Carlos "Little Fish" Ruiz vs. The American center backs
Ruiz is a shifty veteran striker whose petulance deserves its own library. And while the American central defenders should all be experienced enough to stay above his theatrics, that does not make them any more agile. The former FC Dallas striker will spend much of the game trying to forge half chances out of hopeful long balls.
As far as aerial matchups go, the U.S. should have Ruiz pocketed. Should the ball reach Ruiz's control on the ground, the advantage viciously shifts toward the hosts. If Marco Pappa and Jairo Arreola can find the ball in space on the wings to play Ruiz through on the ground, the lack of speed in the American back line will be excruciatingly exposed.
The key for the U.S. will be winning the initial aerial challenges, both centrally and in wide positions, snuffing out Guatemala's attacking prospects and getting back to cracking Ever Almeida's bunker.
If there's one statistic to remember going into the Guatemala match, it is this: Ruiz has scored 48 times his 96 caps, giving him a career average of scoring in every other game. Last Friday in Kingston, he did not score.
Dempsey/Donovan vs. Lopez/Pappa
Donovan and Dempsey will likely swap wings throughout the night, just as Lopez and Pappa could appear in any number of spots. Regardless, this is a battle on two fronts.
The first point of contention is width. The U.S. needs loads of space to play its possession game. Donovan and Dempsey don't have to be tied to the touchlines by any means, they just have to create space on their flanks. If that means drawing their marker in and getting their fullbacks to overlap for service, then so be it. By the same token, picking out Herculez Gomez checking to a wide position is just as useful as it reshuffles the already questionable Guatemalan defense and allows midfielders to surge through the heart of the hosts' vulnerable shell.
But if Donovan and Dempsey cheat in without help from the fullbacks then the field will narrow, the game will condense and the U.S. will have played right into the defensive hands of Guatemala.
The second issue is penetration. The days of burners like DaMarcus Beasley, Donovan and Eddie Johnson running the American attack are over, but the replacements for Beasley and Johnson are better technically. Still, any access to the endline that Donovan and Dempsey can carve out, either in combination or off the dribble, is key. The American squad enjoys a massive height advantage and the simplest of crosses will torment the Guatemalan back line. Serving those crosses from deep not only makes them more potent, it opens up the field and with it, the American possession game, that much more.
Remember how much easier it was to defend Mexico before they received a serious speed injection? The same principle applies here.
US vs. The World was instilled in Bob Bradley's teams. It showed at the Confederations Cup as well as in the kind of harsh environments the U.S. will visit Tuesday. While it may have been a cliched motivation tool, it worked. And in CONCACAF road qualifiers, it's not too far from the truth.
If the 2010 qualifcation cycle is anything to go by, the field in Guatemala City will be uneven, dimly lit and certainly enclosed by 30,000 crazed Guatemalan fans with little goodwill toward any representation of the United States.
The field will hinder the passing game the U.S. needs to dictate the match's tempo while increasing Guatemala's chances of snagging a goal against the run of play. The atmosphere should not be as much of an issue for what is a fairly experienced group, but it is certain to affect the refereeing.
Jermaine Jones goes into the match under the proverbial microscope. In short, his reputation for lashing out proceeds him and the Guatemalan players will be sure to leave lingering studs in on as many challenges as possible, not just against Jones, but the entire American team. Off-the-ball kicks, elbows, shoves, stomps and other gamesmanship will be 90-minute constants. And, as is often the case, the reaction will be punished more harsly than the initial offense.
The U.S. visited Panama in January in preparation for matches like Tuesday night's. And while that experience will help Jones and others - including Klinsmann - not as familiar with CONCACAF hospitality, the 15,000 fans that took in a B-team friendly in January will seem like a family reunion compared to the welcoming the U.S. is due to receive at El Mateo.
Yet if Klinsmann's team can manage the cheap shots and keep its shape on both sides of the ball then superior talent will win the day. Anything less and dropped points and red card suspensions will derail an unforgiving qualifying campaign.
HAVE YOUR SAY ... Is the CONCACAF atmosphere underrated? Overrated? Will the U.S. finish with 11 men on the field? And how much can the team fight back? If I give you an over/under for American yellow cards at 4.5, which are you taking?
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and is currently a journalism student at Syracuse University. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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