By Jacob Klinger
The eerily deafening silence that overtook LIVESTRONG Sporting Park was fleeting.
A rare miscommunication between Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard allowed Carlos Ruiz to slip past the American stalwarts, sliding the ball into the American goal and slamming into the display boards behind the end line. But just as the display board collision tempered the Guatemalan celebration, the U.S.' unflinching response was equally crushing.
Width in the American midfield laid a pair of blankets over the game, ensuring a 3-1 win and U.S. advancement to the final round of World Cup qualifying. The first was protective over a shaky back line. The second, a suffocating blanket of possession that kept Guatemala far out of contention.
Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez led the U.S. in giving Jurgen Klinsmann's squad the width it so desperately needed in breaking down a Guatemalan side committed to play for a draw from the outset. The Klinsmann project appeared to be working when it needed to most, prompting Ian Darke to allude to Dutch Total Football. While the honorary American commentator was being thoroughly hyperbolic, the American team realized a crucial element of any successful attacking-possession side: width.
Johnson and Zusi, playing in his home ground, switched wings at will. And when either winger collected the ball in the touch-line space Guatemala conceded, the ball was goal-bound.
The American equalizer was the product of Gomez's flexibility, pulling wide to harass the Guatemalan fullback into conceding a corner kick that Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra combined to level the score in the tenth minute.
Just eight minutes later Michael Bradley, finding wide space of his own, sent a delightful chip over midfield to Johnson surging down the right flank. His first-time cross rolled in and out of the Guatemalan back line into the gravitational sphere of Clint Dempsey. The Tottenham attacker appeared to use his knee to put the U.S. ahead for good.
Useful and a savior against Antigua & Barbuda, Johnson was downright dangerous against Guatemala. The halo of space given by those tasked with containing him revealed more than fear. It opened up space for the merrily freewheeling Dempsey.
His brace was no accident.
Dempsey is at his best when service is washing in from the flanks. He feeds on and cleans up junk balls in front of goal - as he did after a masterful combination between Zusi, Gomez and Bradley for the final goal in the 36th minute. He is America's best player, and indicative of the state of this team.
It needs space. And while the creativity of players like Dempsey, Bradley and Zusi opens up more angles for the U.S. attack, the whole team becomes increasingly undefendable when the ball is played wide.
Johnson may be in the form of his life, and the confidence is oozing out of him. But those stepovers don't come off in tighter spaces.
Of course the U.S. will face more astute defenses than Guatemala's going forward. Booming diagonals from Bradley and Zusi won't always be possible and Johnson may never resemble a world-beater this closely again in his life.
Tuesday night though, Klinsmann's lineup choice showed a real commitment to working the wings. He played two fullbacks, a creative winger and an in-form force of nature. In so many words he quite clearly said: "Go forth and make space."
They did. And the goalmouth lurkers the U.S. knows and love took care of the rest.
Between goals, the Americans played from sideline to sideline, exhausting the opposition. With 10 minutes remaining and Guatemala needing a goal to advance, the visitors mustered next to nothing.
Unlike in the road leg in Guatemala City, the U.S. kept after the opposition, returned to the wings and worked its way inward, finishing chances and obliterating Guatemalan hopes of a spot in the World Cup. To ensure no one does the same to them in CONCACAF's final Hexagonal, Klinsmann's charges must repeat that foundation of their success tonight.
In the struggles and successes of this semifinal stage of World Cup qualifying, this much has been made clear: the closer the American attack gets to the touchlines, the better the whole team gets.
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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 email@example.com.
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