GUATEMALA CITY - When the US take the field Tuesday at Estadio Mateo Flores for the first true test of 2014 World Cup qualifying, they’ll encounter the usual hostile fans, a choppy, muddy pitch, and some tough-tackling Guatemalans.
But the US will also be taking on what some might find to be a surprisingly well-organized host, with a very good idea of how to maximize its assets to get the most out of the match.
That’s Guatemala in 2012, under their Paraguayan strategist Ever Almeida. The man who took the Bicolor to their first World Cup at any level, leaving the US on the sidelines of the 2011 U-20 World Cup, is an expert at putting his limited Guatemalan footballing resources in the right place on the field.
That typically means a dedicated defensive effort with only occasional, measured counter punching, sprinkled with astute tactical approaches meant to get the lead intelligently, and then defend it. It’s pretty textbook park-the-bus stuff in some respects, but there are some wrinkles that can take unsuspecting opponents by surprise.
“It’s very similar to the idea he’s had, as much at the Sub-20 level as the full team,” said midfielder Jose del Aguila (right), who played for Almeida on that U-20 World Cup team as well. “His idea is to defend first, and defend well, and then attack in an orderly fashion. We’ve been working it for a year or two years now. We know how he works, and we just have to execute it.”
Almeida’s setup with the full team is only as defensive as what you might expect from a coach who spent two decades as a Paraguayan goalkeeper. Before entering the coaching ranks, Almeida defended the shirt of club team Olimpia for almost 20 years, setting a record for Copa Libertadores appearances.
So for him, coaching was always going to be defense first -- in this case starting with the five man back line. Akin to Uruguay’s preferred formation, the outside backs in Almeida’s 5-4-1 can become auxiliary wing attackers, with the formation shifting to a 3-4-3 going forward. When he decides on an attack-oriented approach, Almeida likes to use Marvin Avila and Jairo Arreola, two players employed in more forward roles at their clubs.
“We’ve played with a five man line, I’m used to playing that position,” Avila said. “The wing defenders have to support the attack; it’s a defensive position but the idea is to get up into the attack as well.”
Needing at least a point against the US, though, Almeida is likely to elect a more conservative approach from the start, starting with those wingback spots. That could mean the likes of Rafa Morales and Jonathan Lopez, players who offer more on the defensive side.
So even before kickoff, Almeida’s election of the wingbacks will serve as a hint of just how aggressive or defensive the Bicolor plan to be.
Either way, with a five man line with three central defenders in the middle, Guatemala are adept at clogging the final third, particularly on the narrow, track-bound field at Mateo Flores. Breaking down the defense gets even harder when Almeida throws in two attack-busting d-mids, roles played of late by Wilfred Velasquez and newfound recruit, Colombian-Guatemalan Alejandro Galindo.
To get around it, the keys are “speed of play, and you have to be physical,” according to Portland Timber midfielder Rodney Wallace, whose Costa Rican national team was shut down by the Guatemalans last week.
Another way to break down the wall, though, is by looking for shots from outside the box -- a strategy Jamaica used successfully in the opening frame of their 2-1 win over Guatemala in Kingston on Friday night. Once Guatemala gave up the lead, Almeida was forced to abandon his defensive fortress, making three subs at halftime and sacrificing a d-mid for another forward.
The result was a wide open game and a rather shapeless, rudderless Bicolor for the final 45 minutes, as well as a final score not indicative of the Jamaicans’ dominance of that alternate version of Guatemala.
On the other side of the ball, the Guatemalan attack comes almost exclusively through a three man attacking line, which will attempt to break on counters and create chances with individual skill. Veteran goal poacher Carlos Ruiz -- a man with whom all MLS fans are familiar -- is flanked by two dangerous creative elements, Chicago’s Marco Pappa and either Arreola or Mario Rodriguez.
While Ruiz (right) lurks the box looking for the odd half chance, the supporting mids are adept at taking defenders on the dribble and looking for longer range shots, or getting to the end line and picking out a crashing Ruiz.
Almeida also loves to surprise on set pieces. When these countries played off for a spot in the U-20 World Cup last year, the Guatemalans grabbed the lead on a quickly taken corner, as five-foot-nine Gerson Lima headed home in front of Perry Kitchen and Gale Agbossoumonde.
It turned out that Almeida had picked up on an American tendency to organize slowly on corners, and instructed his team to play as quickly as possible.
Whether from set pieces or open play, Guatemala will look to pressure the American central defenders into one crucial mistake. They can be successful -- in last year’s Gold Cup quarterfinal, Guatemala managed just that against Mexico and nearly cut off El Tri’s run to the title prematurely.
The bottom line for the US will be to avoid giving the hosts the lead. Doing that will take concentration and organization in central defense from the start. As the US work to break down the Guatemalan defense, the American back line will have to stay focused to avoid errors on set pieces and surprise counters -- the only tools Guatemala have to defeat a more skilled opponent.
All in all, Guatemala are probably not nearly as dangerous a rival as they’ve been given credit for of late by media, American fans, or even the team itself. But it is true that though the US will need to be wary, take extreme care not to give up the lead, play solid and safe in back, and remain patient if they plan to take all three points on their visit to Mateo Flores.