The United States men’s soccer team will return to competitive action for the first time in 2016 when visiting Guatemala in World Cup qualifying action on Friday. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team brought the curtain down on a desperately disappointing 2015 by taking four points from its first two games against and Trinidad and Tobago in the semifinal round of Concacaf’s qualifying for Russia 2018. Now comes a double-header with Guatemala, where a maximum six points would very likely clinch the United States’ place in the final round Hexagonal ahead of the final two games in September.
Yet it is not merely the points that provide a need for encouraging results and performances. The wounds of a dismal semifinal exit at last year’s Gold Cup and subsequent Confederations Cup playoff loss to Mexico have yet to heel, with a rout of minnows St Vincent and the Grenadines and an uninspiring goalless draw at Trinidad and Tobago doing little to win over skeptics. The U.S. will certainly be looking for better in what promises to be a big year, with World Cup qualifying as well as the Copa America Centenario on home soil this summer.
Following friendly victories over Iceland and Canada earlier this year with a home-based squad, Klinsmann has called up a large expanded party of 26 players for the double-header with Guatemala. Included are veterans like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron, as well as younger talent still looking to make their mark, like San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham and Columbus Crew winger Ethan Finlay.
“With the Copa America on the horizon, which is a very, very special event, we told the players ‘listen the best way to approach 2016 and start it with these two games against Guatemala would be ideally winning both games, there’s no question about it.’ So were going to go into Guatemala City with a lot of respect for a young very hungry Guatemala team, but trying to win.
“It’s a very special year, because when do we ever play a Copa America at home. So players all know that and that’s why we actually brought in 26 players, knowing that we can only field 23 on the roster sheet, in order to spice up the competition.”
Perhaps the fiercest competition promises to be in goal. Since returning from a year-long sabbatical following the 2014 World Cup, Tim Howard has been alternated with the man who took his place during his absence, Brad Guzan. That policy will continue for the next two matches, Klinsmann has confirmed, although the coach didn’t reveal who would start in Guatemala City on Friday.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that neither are currently enjoying the best time with their clubs. While Guzan’s club Aston Villa are all-but certainties to be relegated from the Premier League after a wretched season in which they have so far conceded a league-high 58 goals, Howard is out of the team at Everton and recently announced he would be joining Colorado Rapids in the summer.
Howard was the man in goal on the U.S. team’s last visit to Guatemala, when it was held to a 1-1 draw in 2012, courtesy of a goal from a man soon to be his teammate in Colorado, Marco Pappa. While the U.S. has a dominant record over Guatemala overall, the series has been much tighter in Guatemala, where the U.S. has only won once, to go along with five draws.
Guatemala could really do with a victory this time around to keep alive its hopes of reaching the Hexagonal, having lost its opening match at home to Trinidad and Tobago.
Match time: 10:06 p.m. EDT
TV channel: beIN Sports
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect