GUATEMALA CITY — When Guatemala goalkeeper Paulo Motta sent an unusually low, darting goal kick searing down the middle of the field, midfielder Michael Bradley tracked the ball, preparing to put his head to it. But at the last instant, Bradley flinched and pulled back.
Thirty yards behind him, the two central defenders for the United States, Omar Gonzalez and Michael Orozco, watched the play unfold. When Bradley, their teammate, recoiled, they were caught flat on their feet and could only watch as the ball skidded between them.
There was no such indecision for the volatile Guatemalan forward Carlos Ruiz.
He is many things — a provocateur, a pest, a powder keg. But owing to his long presence in Major League Soccer and international play, there is not an American player who is unaware that, above all else, Ruiz is a poacher.
So, while the Americans stood and watched the ball, Ruiz did not. He took off running, a modest investment, and when the ball split the American defense, Ruiz was there to accept the reward. He was just as certain not to squander it, slipping the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper Tim Howard and into the net.
The goal doubled Guatemala’s lead just 15 minutes into what became a 2-0 loss for the United States in a World Cup qualifying match on Friday night. Their first loss to Guatemala since 1988, a span of 21 games, was one the United States could perhaps afford. A win Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, over Guatemala, which will be without Ruiz, would put the United States on the brink of the next stage of qualification, with a trip to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a visit from Trinidad and Tobago remaining.
Trinidad and Tobago is atop the group with 7 points, followed by Guatemala (6), the United States (4) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (0). Each team has three games remaining. The top two teams advance.
But Ruiz’s goal neatly encapsulated the current state of the United States, which, in the nearly two years since the last World Cup was played, has often looked inattentive and uninspired — whether in last summer’s Gold Cup, during autumn friendlies or in front of a raucous, foreign crowd that cheered on the Chapines. Chants of “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”) two hours before the game became “Sí, se pudo” (“Yes, we could”) near the end.
On the first goal, in the seventh minute, Mix Diskerud was beaten to a corner kick by Rafael Morales, who nodded the ball just inside the near post, which had been left unattended — despite instructions to the contrary that Coach Jurgen Klinsmann had written out on the dry erase board in a pregame meeting.
In fact, Guatemala, which was playing its first competitive game, and third over all, under a new coach, Walter Claveri, looked more cohesive than the United States, which has had nearly five years to get in sync with Klinsmann.
Klinsmann, who has come under increasing criticism, was asked how such a lack of focus could be present at the start of a game. He replied, “That’s a good question for the players.”
Later, when asked if he questioned either his lineup choices or his mode of preparing the players, Klinsmann said: “Absolutely you question that, and you kind of think how can we fix this, this and this. At the end of the day, these two mistakes, these two goals — you just have to swallow it, because those are individual mistakes that you cannot do at this level. That’s what happened tonight so we’ll take the blame. I take the blame.”
It was a rare moment of public accountability for Klinsmann, who is not likely to be going anywhere, given his contract, which brought him $3.2 million in the last fiscal year and carries through the 2018 World Cup.
“We get a good result on Tuesday, which we expect, then things are back on track,” said Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation
That is true, but it misses the broader point.
Things rarely turn out well for coaches around the world who, like Klinsmann, are working through their second World Cup cycle, the record shows. This has applied in the United States as well. After Gulati brought Bruce Arena back after a stirring quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup, the Americans fizzled in Germany four years later. Bob Bradley was rehired after losing in overtime of the round of 16 in 2010, but he was fired a year later after getting blitzed by Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
Klinsmann often speaks about the importance of pushing players out of their comfort zone, forcing them to grow and test themselves — as in moving abroad to a more challenging league, or taking their skills and knowledge and applying them to a new position on the field, one with different responsibilities.
But on Friday, he handed defensive responsibilities to Diskerud, a midfielder, who then neglected what he is good at — creating scoring chances — before he was subbed out at the start of the second half. Geoff Cameron, a central defender for Stoke City in the English Premier League, started at right back, where his passing often led nowhere. DeAndre Yedlin, a right back at Sunderland, did plenty of running as the right midfielder, but it rarely led anywhere. Eventually, Cameron and Yedlin were returned to their familiar positions.
Still, Klinsmann maintained, “We have absolute trust in our players.”
Perhaps the better question is how much trust remains in Klinsmann, whose vision of transforming the way the United States plays gave way long ago to pragmatism and a seeming mishmash of ideas, lineups and objectives.
As Klinsmann spoke at a news conference, his boss, Gulati, sat at the edge of the stage, his back turned to Klinsmann as he scrolled through his phone. It provided an image that, as the players had done earlier with their performance, raised an interesting question.
They can hear Klinsmann talk, but are they listening?