For all the hysteria surrounding the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier Sunday, a compelling argument can be made that the Americans' match against Guatemala tonight in Birmingham carries far greater significance.
To get to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the United States must win its home games and, when possible, collect a few points on the road. Having won its final-round opener last month at Trinidad and Tobago, the Americans weren't desperate for victory in Mexico City -- although success there certainly would've boosted their confidence after seven decades of failure.
The U.S. will have to focus on Guatemala's Carlos Ruiz (20), who got funky after scoring in a 5-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Trinidad and Tobago.
(Moises Castillo -- AP)
_____U.S. vs. Guatemala_____
Where: Legion Field, Birmingham.
When: 8 p.m.
Records: United States 1-1, Guatemala 1-0-1.
Other Games: Costa Rica (1-1) at Trinidad and Tobago (0-2), 3:30; Mexico (2-0) at Panama (0-1-1), 8:30 p.m. (Telemundo).
"We're disappointed about the loss, but we've got to put it behind us," defender Carlos Bocanegra said. "We have a lot of games left in qualifying [eight]. If we get three points against Guatemala, we'll be heading in the right direction."
Guatemala has never qualified for the World Cup and was widely regarded as the fourth-best team in the six-nation final round. But an opening 0-0 tie at Panama and a 5-1 home victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday has made the Chapines a serious contender for one of the region's three automatic berths.
U.S. assistant coach Curt Onalfo scouted the game at Mateo Flores Stadium in Guatemala City over the weekend and came away impressed.
"They were on fire and they couldn't have had a better game," he said. "It was a combination of Trinidad not doing a good job closing down the ball and trying to pressure them and, in turn, Guatemala having a majority of the possessions. They sent a lot of numbers forward and they finished their chances. They're going to be geared up for this game."
The MLS-based U.S. players are quite familiar with Guatemala's most dangerous element: forward Carlos Ruiz, the 2002 league MVP who scored 50 goals in three seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He scored two goals eight minutes apart in the first half Saturday, while new Galaxy midfielder Guillermo Ramirez had an early goal and burly forward Dwight Pezzarossi struck twice late in the game.
Unlike Sunday in Mexico City (elevation 7,300 feet), the United States won't have to make altitude adjustments in Birmingham (620 feet), which means the Americans won't play as cautiously as they did in the thin air three days ago. Several times in the first half, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley found space behind the Mexican midfield, particularly Donovan on the right flank, but they seemed reluctant to accelerate because the U.S. strategy stressed patience in order to avoid early exhaustion.
Beasley is suspended tonight after being assessed his second yellow card of qualifying Sunday.
"We're playing on home soil, we're down at sea level, we always seem to do quite well at home," said midfielder Eddie Lewis, who scored in the second half Sunday and has two of the U.S. team's three goals in the final round. "We'll be able to put our foot on the gas a bit more in terms of the way we're going to go at them."
Besides filling Beasley's slot, Coach Bruce Arena might make a few defensive changes. Dutch-based Cory Gibbs is expected to start after not playing Sunday, and Chris Albright and Chad Marshall are options.
Whoever is on the field, they will have a majority of the crowd behind them -- which isn't always the case when U.S. teams play at home against Latin American opponents. In 1996, the Arena-coached Olympic squad played two first-round games there, losing to Argentina and beating Tunisia. The national team tied Tunisia in a 2000 game in Birmingham and beat Ecuador two years later.
"We really believe every time we have been in Birmingham, it has been a pro-American crowd," Arena said. "We're very comfortable with whatever the crowd is in Birmingham, hopefully it is 30 [to] 40,000 people, that it's going to be 30 [to] 40,000 people supporting the U.S. team. That's what we love about Birmingham, it's just been a great venue for us."