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Back Near Sea Level, U.S. Elevates Its Game

United States 2, Guatemala 0

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page D01

BIRMINGHAM, March 30 -- What a difference three days and about 7,000 feet make.

The U.S. national soccer team shook off the disappointment of another high-elevation qualifying loss at Mexico with a vastly improved performance Wednesday night, rolling to a 2-0 victory over Guatemala before a bipartisan crowd of 31,624 at Legion Field.

Eddie Johnson's career is taking off after he scored his eighth goal in eight games for the United States. (Tami Chappell -- Reuters)

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With the win, the Americans (2-1) atoned for their lackluster outing in Mexico City and took another step toward the 2006 World Cup in Germany. There are seven games left in the six-nation final round.

"Probably the final score was not an indication of our dominance," Coach Bruce Arena said. "We were very good tonight. . . . We won every battle on the field, every matchup."

The revitalized U.S. attack was unrelenting and left Guatemala (1-1-1) with precious few opportunities to replicate its five-goal outburst against Trinidad and Tobago last weekend.

Forward Eddie Johnson, on the eve of his 21st birthday, got things started in the 11th minute by collecting Landon Donovan's clever pass and slotting a 12-yard shot past goalkeeper Richard Trigueno for his eighth goal in just eight international appearances.

Midfielder Steve Ralston doubled the lead in the 68th minute, finishing a wild three-minute sequence in which Donovan had a goal disallowed by an offside call, Kasey Keller made an outstanding save on Mario Rodriguez and referee Ramesh Ramdhan missed a clear handball on Guatemala's Nestor Martinez in the penalty area.

Only the Americans' inability to finish their scoring chances left the outcome in doubt until Ralston's clincher.

"They beat us well," Guatemala Coach Ramon "El Primitivo" Maradiaga said. "The result in the first half could've been a lot worse for us."

Added Keller, "We could've scored five or six."

The U.S. team was widely criticized for its play Sunday, but in a different setting against a weaker opponent, the Americans excelled.

"We played 15 or 16 games without losing and we have one bad half against a very good team at an incredible altitude and nasty smog, and all of a sudden we're the worst team" in the region, Donovan said. "This should make for some peace and quiet for a week. We needed that."

Back near sea level, the Americans took the Guatemalans' breath away with their fast-paced attack, sparked by Donovan, who accelerated behind the Chapines' midfield and sprayed passes to Eddie Lewis on the left wing and to Johnson and Brian Ching lurking at the edge of the penalty area.

Donovan's assertiveness was vital because of the absence of veteran leader Claudio Reyna, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle.

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