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Bocanegra's Goal Is Just Enough for the U.S.

Carlos Bocanegra, left, celebrates his goal against Guatemala with teammate Michael Bradley during their CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on Wednesday.
Carlos Bocanegra, left, celebrates his goal against Guatemala with teammate Michael Bradley during their CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on Wednesday. (Daniel Leclair - Reuters)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008; 3:06 AM

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug. 20 -- The U.S national soccer team has reached a point in its evolution where ties on the road in World Cup qualifying are no longer fulfilling. The Americans are willing to accept a draw, but feel they should win anywhere in this region, except perhaps Mexico.

Fifteen minutes into the second half at deafening Estadio Mateo Flores, the Americans were probably wishing for a tie. The game was scoreless, but Guatemala had narrowly missed three consecutive scoring chances and U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo had just been ejected for receiving a second yellow card.

"We looked at the clock," goalkeeper Tim Howard said, "and it was a long time."

Over the course of eight minutes, however, the U.S. fortunes took an unexpected turn. A Guatemalan defender was red-carded for inflicting a gash in Eddie Lewis's right eyebrow and, with the teams at even strength, defender Carlos Bocanegra nodded in reserve DaMarcus Beasley's corner kick to give the Americans a 1-0 victory.

With their first win in Guatemala in more than 20 years, the Americans joined Trinidad and Tobago atop the four-team, semifinal-round group. Each nation will play six matches and the top two will advance to next year's final round, which will send at least three teams to the 2010 tournament in South Africa.

The U.S. team will travel to Havana to face Cuba on Sept. 6 before playing its first home match four days later against Trinidad and Tobago in Bridgeview, Ill.

"It's a hard-fought three points," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said. "We relied much more just on the effort of the team, the team spirit, the mentality, and I think that was the most important thing for us in a very hard game."

The Americans had played several prestigious opponents the last two years -- England, Spain and Argentina, among others -- but World Cup qualifying offers a different set of challenges because of the stakes and the settings.

Five hours before kickoff, the corner of Seventh Avenue and Mateo Flores Street was bustling with activity. Blue-clad supporters, with and without tickets, gathered at the top of an incline that led to the stadium, a concrete hulk with slate-gray walls lying in a shallow ravine. The Rose Bowl, it is not.

Kiosks lined the street, which was closed to vehicular traffic, and merchants selling t-shirts, Dr. Seuss-style hats, headbands, snacks and, of course, flags were doing brisk business. Security guards frisked every ticket holder and special forces with automatic weapons at their side watched attentively.

The security presence was intimidating to an outsider, but the mood was merry as fans banged drums and inflatable sticks en route to the venue. Inside, new seats in different shades of blue, a video scoreboard and a rich, green field provided stark contrast to the drab exterior.

A cool rain spoiled an otherwise delightful afternoon in this capital city, which sits at 4,900 feet, but as kickoff approached, the skies cleared. Weather had been an issue for the U.S. team for several days, hastily uprooting its training camp in Miami ahead of Tropical Storm Fay. Upon arriving here, the team had to arrange to use a pair of small facilities.

Normally, the stadium is available for use by the visiting team the day before the match, but Tuesday's heavy storm disrupted those plans. Thanks to the assistance from a Guatemalan national working at the U.S. Embassy, the team was able to practice for about an hour before daylight faded over the dilapidated, unlit park.

The Americans actually began their World Cup qualifying schedule in June, but Barbados was hardly an obstacle in a two-game, second-round series that resulted in a 9-0 aggregate score. Not so long ago, the Americans would feel fortunate to escape with a tie in an environment like this one, but as the program has progressed and more U.S. players have gained experience in Europe, expectations have evolved.

Guatemala is not expected to seriously challenge for a World Cup berth, but with a 3-0 exhibition victory over Bolivia two weeks ago at RFK Stadium, the Chapines, as well as their supporters, were brimming with confidence.

The first half ended scoreless as both sides generated a collection of half-chances and the Guatemalans' outcry for a penalty kick was ignored. The Chapines, under pressure to win at home, seized the momentum after the break with three opportunities that just missed the target. Then in the 60th minute, Cherundolo received his second yellow card, leaving the Americans undermanned for what should have been the final half-hour.

But three minutes later, Gustavo Cabrera was sent off for a late challenge on Lewis near midfield.

"From what I was told after -- at that point, I just remember guys standing over me -- I had won the ball and I think he came a bit late and caught me with his head on my head," said Lewis, who received at least four stitches. "He got me pretty good."

At even strength, the Americans regained their stride. Oguchi Onyewu tested goalkeeper Ricardo Trigueno with a header, and on the ensuring corner kick, Bocanegra directed a header into the right side of the net, silencing the crowd of more than 25,000 for the first time all night.

"Great service and I was just able to get on the end of it," he said. "Everyone made good runs and were all causing confusion in there and I was able to get free."

The Chapines had plenty of chances to draw even, but Howard made crucial saves and Guatemala squandered a late opportunity in the penalty area.

"Our experienced players have made the point to the team that qualification is always difficult away from home," Bradley said. "You have to expect games to be very tough and we have played some tough games in the last year, but none of them are qualifiers. So to experience it, to win in that fashion, where it required a pure determined effort, is good for the group."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company