GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — After two almost-perfunctory group matches, the United States U-20 team faces its first game that really, truly matters since it arrived here.
The math is simple: Win, and the US are into the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Lose, and they go home.
The former is no easy task against Guatemala. The host nation will have nearly the entire crowd at Estadio Mateo Flores behind them, although this might not be the disadvantage one might think. For one, the crowds, while enthusiastic, have not been huge for this tournament. Secondly, Guatemala has had very little success against the United States at this level: only one win in six tries. That win came in 1964. They last met in 2007, finishing 0-0.
On paper, the US, who have yet to concede a goal during the tournament, should be able to win and earn a berth in the World Cup for the eighth consecutive time.
The Americans raced through the group stage, easing past Suriname, 4-0, and Panama, 2-0.
[inline_node:323929]Coach Thomas Rongen experimented a bit in the match against Panama, inserting D.C. United defender Perry Kitchen in the midfield. The strategy served two purposes: 1) It kept Amobi Okugo from getting a second yellow card and facing a suspension, and 2) it threw a little misdirection at the US’s quarterfinal opponent.
“[The plan was to] make Guatemala and Honduras think a little and not totally play our hand,” Rongen said at a press conference after the match.
Earlier in the week, Rongen admitted the first-choice lineup was the one that took the field in the US's first match, against Suriname, so presumably Kitchen will move back into the defense and Okugo, who plays for the Philadelphia Union, will reprise his defensive midfielder role for the Guatemala game.
|GK MacMath||GK Morales|
|D Garza||D Ramirez|
|D Agbossoumonde||D Moreno|
|D Kitchen||D Enoc|
|D Valentin||D Andrade|
|M Lletget||M Herrarte|
|M Okugo||M Castillo|
|M Rowe||M Del Aguila|
|M Wood||M Ceballos|
|F Doyle||F Lopez|
|F Gyau||F Lima|
1860 Munich's Bobby Wood, who scored against Suriname before coming off with a first-half injury, appears ready to return, and Notre Dame midfielder Dillon Powers also seems likely to make the bench for the first time in the tournament.
The two goals against Panama, both scored by UCLA star Kelyn Rowe, were things of beauty and showed an American attack functioning as a group. Against a Guatemala defense that can concede goals—they let in three against Honduras in group play—the attack’s ability to stay unified could be key.
"Sebby [Sebastian Lletget] and I were working well together," Rowe said after the Panama match. "Conor with the little dummy. Perfect. I saw Sebby, and went in behind. Sebby with another great, calm ball. I saw the keeper come out, leave his right side open, and I put it past him."
If there's a danger for the US, it's a tendency to lay off after taking a lead. The first 20 minutes against Panama were excellent, but the side relaxed after scoring the second goal. The players admitted to taking their foot off the pedal, and when they tried to regain their poise, the match devolved into an ugly kickabout.
With home-field advantage clearly on Guatemala’s side on Wednesday, the US would like to avoid anything that could incite the referee into too many whistles and cards.
The host nation has never qualified for the U-20 World Cup. Gustavo Bobadilla's side, however, came through the group stage, finishing second to Honduras in Group A with one win and one loss.
Truth be told, although they earned a 2-0 win against Jamaica, the Chapines have been outplayed for most of the tournament. They fell 3-1 to Honduras, and never really threatened. It was shocking how little pressure they put on even after Honduras went down to 10 men.
But, of course, they are the home team, meaning they will have the overwhelming support of the crowd (and perhaps a little help from the referee). And it's not a squad totally devoid of talent. Henry Lopez is Guatemala’s best attacking player and most creative. He is the only player on the U-20 side with a senior cap, and he has a history of tallying against the US—the 18-year-old netted a penalty kick in a 2008 friendly when he was on the U-17 side.
Gerson Lima, an 18-year-old who plays for Jalapa, has scored twice for his country in two games. He took advantage of a Jamaican defensive error in their group opener and then struck again against Honduras.
If Lopez or Lima can somehow find a goal early, Guatemala could pack it in and eke out a victory.
United States: Conor Doyle
Rongen on the Derby County forward, who has been one of, if not the, breakout player of the first two matches: "He was just unbelievable [against Panama]. We needed him in a lot of positions today, due to the fact that we rested some guys with a few little nicks. He played as a 9. He played as an 11. He played as a 7. And I think he played as a 10 for the last 10 minutes or so."
Guatemala: Kevin Norales
Assuming Bobadilla keeps the same lineup he's used the first two matches, the midfielder won't start but the substitute spark might be the most dangerous attacker on the Guatemalan roster. Creative and attack-minded, he's not afraid to shoot, particularly with left foot.
Guatemala will provide the sternest test yet for Rongen's team, but the Americans should move on against a side that cannot match them for skill, poise, or experience.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.