GUATEMALA CITY - Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t shook by the thought of playing in the hostile environments of CONCACAF nations. Sure, there are armed guards escorting the U.S. coach and his players at all times in places like Guatemala and Panama. But he’s seen worse.
The former German player has featured in the Olympics, three European Championships and three World Cups. He’s played in Iran and Turkey in front of crowds of as many as 110,000. He’s had moments when he couldn’t see the field for the first 10 minutes of games due to smoke from rowdy pregame celebrations. So what makes playing in Central America any different?
Nothing, says the coach.
“It’s normal. This is what soccer brings to the table,” Klinsmann told a small group of traveling reporters prior to the United States’ 1-1 draw against Guatemala in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday. “I think it’s awesome. You should embrace that, and that’s what I hope my guys are doing.”
While Klinsmann’s former Germany team participates in Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, with its games being broadcast around the world, the U.S. squad had to fight its way through rush-hour traffic to get to Estadio Mateo Flores, an old stadium that holds 30,000. There weren’t hundreds of reporters but rather five Americans scribes who made the trip south. The game was shown only on cost-prohibitive pay-per-view and the internet.
Some of the younger players didn’t know what to expect when they stepped off the plane two days prior to their second World Cup qualifier in five days. Terrence Boyd, who earned his first cap with the senior team against Antigua and Barbuda on Friday, said, “I didn’t know it was so dangerous in Guatemala,” after seeing his first dozen or so machine guns at the airport.
But that’s why it helps that the U.S. team has veterans and a coach who have seen it all.
“It’s important to come here knowing what you’re getting into,” said midfielder Clint Dempsey. “It helps to prepare the guys because this is probably different than anything they’ve experienced as far as the atmosphere and the fans. You just have to go out there and grind out results.”
Leave it to the Fulham star who has been with the national team since 2004 to help the Americans overcome constant boos and derogatory chants from a nearly sold-out Guatemalan crowd in the first half on Tuesday night.
But it did take some time for the U.S. team to get warmed up inside the caged pitch. Guatemala, which hadn’t beaten the Americans in over 24 years, had more scoring chances early on, forcing U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard into a couple tough saves to keep it scoreless before Dempsey scored off a feed from Fabian Johnson in the 40th minute.
The energy was instantly sucked out of the building, which is exactly what the Americans were hoping for. But that didn’t last long.
“They looked pretty dead and dejected going into the locker room,” Herculez Gomez said. “But they were at home and were trying to get something out of this since they were deeper in the hole, so I’m not too surprised.”
As the teams returned to the pitch for the second half, the fans chanted “si se puede” or “yes we believe.” And sure enough the home-field advantage returned in Guatemala’s favor, leaving the U.S. team stunned and the home crowd ecstatic.
In the 83rd minute, Marco Pappa of the Chicago Fire drilled a free kick from outside the box past Howard to earn Guatemala a much-needed result and the U.S. team looking for answers.
“I thought we did well handling [the momentum shift], it’s just the ball bounces pretty good,” U.S. defender Geoff Cameron said. “It’s just one of those unfortunate circumstances with seven minutes left in the game.
Perhaps CONCACAF venues are a bit more difficult to play in than Klnsmann may have initially thought.