For the first time since its 2-0 victory over Mexico in 2013, the U.S. Men’s National Team will return to play a match in Columbus. But before the Stars & Stripes host Guatemala at MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday, March 29, they will face La Azul y Blanco in a hostile environment in Guatemala City at 10 p.m. ET Friday.
“Even just arriving here and driving through the streets, you know you’re not home anymore,” Crew SC and USMNT midfielder Ethan Finlay said ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
“We’re going to play a game and it’s country versus country. It means a lot obviously to them and it means a lot to us. There are big points at stake and you can definitely feel that, and I’m sure you’re going to feel that Friday night.”
Guatemala is one of the more hostile places to play, and Finlay has heard plenty of stories from former USMNT players, including Frankie Hejduk who shared his advice with the current team.
“He’s told us that it’s not easy and we have to stand together throughout the game,” Finlay said. “It’s obviously an important time for U.S. Soccer and an important start to 2016.”
Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been clear about what he expects from his team in the first two competitive matches of the year.
“We told the players, ‘Listen, the best way to approach 2016 and to start it with these two games against Guatemala would be, ideally, winning both games.’ There’s no question about it,” Klinsmann said.
“We’re going into Guatemala City with a lot of respect for a young, very hungry Guatemalan team, but we’re trying to win, trying to win and also get three points at home.”
With its double-header against Guatemala, the United States can take a big step towards qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The team currently leads Group C in the Semifinal Round of CONCACAF qualifying with four points in two matches.
The U.S. opened its qualification campaign on November 13, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri with a 6-1 win over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines followed by a 0-0 draw against Trinidad and Tobago four days later.
The contests against Guatemala will be the United States' third and fourth of six matches in the four-team, double round-robin Semifinal Round. Wins over La Azul y Blanco would see the U.S. through to the final Hexagonal Round.
“The objective is to win two games here,” Finlay said. “Our goal is to come out of these next two matches and qualify for the Hex and move forward with qualification.”
The Yanks hold a 14-3-6 record against Guatemala, with the last match coming in July of 2015. The USMNT won that contest 4-0 behind goals from Timmy Chandler, Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski.
Despite its all-time success against Guatemala, the U.S. is preparing for two tough contests, particularly Friday’s match in Guatemala City.
“It’s not an easy place to play,” Finlay said. “We’ve been fortunate recently to get good results against Guatemala but it’s never easy to come down to Central America and get a result. We’re just trying to stay focused. We had a good pre-camp in Miami and we’re prepared for Friday night.”
Should Finlay make an appearance for the United States in either match, he could face off with Crew SC teammate Rodrigo Saravia, who received his third call-up from Guatemala.
“It says a lot about what we’re doing at Columbus Crew SC,” Finlay said. “It’s a great opportunity to for him to play in his home country and play at his home club stadium, which will be a hostile environment for him since we’re going to pack the place.”
Before MAPFRE Stadium turns into a sea of Red, White and Blue, however, the U.S. will have to deal with the hostile environment at the Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City.
“The thing that we have to focus on is that it’s a soccer game to be played,” Finlay said, “and that’s where are our minds at.”
Guatemala vs. the United States kicks off at 10 p.m. ET. The match will be live on beIN Sport and NBC Universo. Tickets for Tuesday’s match at MAPFRE Stadium are still available here.