U.S. finds itself in precarious but familiar World Cup qualifying position
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The hand-wringing among U.S. fans continues after the national team's dreadful 2-0 World Cup qualifying loss Friday in Guatemala. Even coach Jurgen Klinsmann admits that Tuesday's rematch in Columbus (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) against Los Chapines is now a game the Americans must win.
However, around the U.S. veterans, there is no evident sense of panic. It seems like business as usual. This makes sense, despite the stakes. Many of them have been in this position before.
Early in the previous qualifying cycle -- Klinsmann's first at the helm -- the U.S. lost in Jamaica for the first time, then regrouped and beat the Reggae Boyz in Columbus four days later. A month on in Kansas City, in another pivotal match on the road to Brazil 2014, the hosts found themselves down early against Guatemala before storming back to win 3-1.
"We have a number of players who have been through qualifying before and know that these twists and turns along the way are part of it," captain Michael Bradley said. "You can't be scared of that. You have to understand that somewhere along the way, maybe twice, you're playing a game that your lives depend on."
If momentum isn't on the hosts' side this time, at least history is. Guatemala has never won on U.S. soil -- they've managed just one tie in 13 games -- and the Americans have never lost at MAPFRE Stadium, long considered the national team's spiritual home.
Said defender Geoff Cameron: "We always seem to find a way here."
Maybe so, but it's never easy. And it won't be this time, even against FIFA's 95th-ranked team. Guatemala arrives riding a wave of confidence following Friday's victory. The visitors will look to frustrate the U.S. at every turn Tuesday, just as they did in the first game.
"They were very aggressive," Klinsmann said of Guatemala. "They were chasing us all over the place. They made it very miserable ... we expect them to play the same way."
Again Klinsmann's squad will be shorthanded. Defenders Matt Besler, John Brooks and Fabian Johnson returned to their clubs Sunday after injuries prevented them from playing in Central America. Klinsmann said Monday that veteran midfielder Alejandro Bedoya (ankle) might not be able to play, either.
That means Klinsmann will be forced to juggle his lineup again. But the coach took issue Monday with criticism that he deployed players out of position in Guatemala.
"We play the best 11 that we think in that moment is the best 11," Klinsmann said. "I appreciate this discussion, when you say maybe [DeAndre] Yedlin should play right-back or Geoff Cameron should play center-back. But it would also be helpful if you look back a second to where they play with their clubs and also with their history with the U.S. national team. So I'm not playing anybody out of position."
The decisions still deserve scrutiny, however. Klinsmann is correct that Cameron has experience at right-back. It's true he has mostly used Yedlin on the wing. But before Friday, Cameron had been in central defense for four straight games for the U.S. (and was probably the team's best defender in all of them), and he has been in the middle for Premier League Stoke City more often than not this season. Before Friday, Yedlin, Sunderland's starting right-back, hadn't played on the wing since November. Michael Orozco, who started the Americans' previous qualifier in the right corner, swapped places with Cameron, despite having yet to make a league appearance for Mexican club Tijuana this year.
It's not the first time Klinsmann has made odd lineup choices, of course, but he tends to be more pragmatic when his back is against the wall. That certainly describes the spot the coach and his team find themselves in now.
"We know the situation we're in. It doesn't matter if we win ugly [or] pretty," Cameron said. "It doesn't really matter what position I'll be playing, or hopefully be playing."
He's right. The only thing that matters for the Americans is doing whatever it takes to earn three points.
"Things don't always go as planned," forward Clint Dempsey said. "It's always difficult playing away from home, and that's never changed. Yeah, we're upset with the result. But at the same time, we've always been strong at home. We've got to be strong again."
- Klinsmann said the pro-U.S. atmosphere at MAPFRE Stadium could be the difference Tuesday. "Playing here is special," said Klinsmann, who won both his two previous games here: World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica in 2012 and Mexico the following year. "Being here in Columbus gives us a good feeling because you know the crowd is behind us, they help us, and they help us especially when things maybe don't go your way."
Bradley echoed his coach's words.
"Home games in qualifying are so important. To take full points at home on a regular basis plays such a big part in ultimately getting to the World Cup," the captain said. "Certainly Columbus, when you look back at the history, there is something special here."
"I think teams come here and know a little bit of that history, look at our record here and know that they're going to be in for a tough night," he said. "For us, we're excited to step on the field in a big game here and hope the fans, from the time we step out onto the field, can give us a real boost in terms of energy, life, passion and make this a place that, from the time they get here, Guatemala knows they're not coming away with anything."
- As poor as the U.S. was Friday in Guatemala, it created several golden chances to score in the second half. Two of those fell to Dempsey, who said Monday that he should have buried at least one of them. Dempsey broke down exactly what happened on both opportunities.
"If you look at the first one, it was a bit of a slow [pass], so I'm having to go farther to the near post, and then you don't have as much of an angle at the goal," he said. "What you're trying to do is hit it hard and low. Sometimes it goes through the keeper's legs.
"On the second one," he continued, "there wasn't really an option to go to the right because there was a defender there. So then you have two choices: You can either strike the ball with the inside of your foot and try to place it at the near post in the corner. You can try to hit it with your toes down. Or, you can try to fake the shot and push it wide so you can get more of an angle. But knowing how things were going [in the game], I didn't know if it made sense to try to risk it ... I decided to take it first time."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.