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U.S. against the world

Americans top Guatemala despite hostile home crowd

Posted: Friday June 8, 2007 2:43AM; Updated: Friday June 8, 2007 12:32PM
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Oguchi Onyewu taunts the fans after being sent off in the 73rd minute.
Oguchi Onyewu taunts the fans after being sent off in the 73rd minute.
• RECAP: United States 1, Guatemala 0
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CARSON, Calif. -- For Benny Feilhaber, the setup couldn't have been better. Thursday night was his first tournament game with the U.S. national team, and his friends and family had come en masse from nearby Irvine to see the 22-year-old make his breakthrough.

"I was really expecting it to be a home game," he admitted. "I didn't expect there to be so many Guatemala fans out there."

Welcome to life on the U.S. national team, kid. The Americans opened their defense of their CONCACAF Gold Cup title at the Home Depot Center against Guatemala, and toughed out a 1-0 win against a team that out-muscled them in front of 21,334 fans who all seemed to be cheering against them.

It was a gritty match, the kind the U.S. expects from Guatemala -- ranked No. 87 in the world by FIFA, but a squad that constantly creates problems for the Yanks with their physical nature, chippy tactics and tendency to play in a defensive set for most of the game.

Still, the U.S. had its chances. Clint Dempsey finally broke through in the 26th minute with a gentle side-foot off a Taylor Twellman cross, but it was the only time the Americans were able to actually put the ball in the net. They had at least five good chances to score in the first half alone, but missed the goal.

"We hoped for more goals, but I think credit goes to Guatemala," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "They're hard to play against."

The U.S. had come in prepared for the physical play of the Guatemalans, whose every hard challenge in the first half was cheered on by the crowd. But as the second half started, the momentum started shifting in the other direction. Guatemala emerged from the tunnel after halftime to thunderous cheering, in part thanks to a crowd strengthened by fans of El Salvador who had come for the second half of the doubleheader.

And the Guatemalans fed off it. They kept the pressure on the U.S., which saw four players booked in the second half, all of whom were clearly frustrated with the free-fouling nature of their opponents. Monstrous defender Oguchi Onyewu was ejected for his second yellow card in the 73rd minute for bowling over speedy Guatemala sub Mario "El Loco" Rodríguez, sending the crowd into hysterics and putting the U.S. down a man for the rest of the match.

"We tried to be a good defensive team and tried to keep the ball," said Carlos Ruiz, Guatemala's most renowned player and the one who saw the bulk of its scoring chances. "We know the U.S. has very fast players so we play in the midfield with a lot of guys [to counter them]."

Guatemala pushed forward and actually tested U.S. keeper Tim Howard twice, but in the end, the U.S. defense held up and grabbed the win. And in the opening game of a high-stakes tournament, that's what counts.

"We walk off the field knowing that in a hard game, in a tough environment where we played a man down, we knew how to deal with things, that we knew how to win," Bradley said.

The senior members of the team say they got what they expected from Guatemala, even more important, what they got from the so-called home crowd. Said midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, "On the national team, it doesn't matter where we play -- Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A. -- it's always an away game. We're used to it now."

And it looks to continue that way. The U.S. faces Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday here in its second match of the Gold Cup group stage, where plenty of Guatemala and El Salvador fans will likely stick around from the first match. Then the Yanks go to Foxborough, Mass., for their third match against El Salvador next week. If the U.S. can advance to the final on June 24 in Chicago, it would likely meet Mexico, whose fan base in the U.S. is notoriously loud, passionate and often hostile toward Team USA.

"It is what it is," said Dempsey of the environment. "It makes us a better team in the long run because that's what it's going to be like when it comes time to qualify for the World Cup. Obviously, we'd like to have more support. But it doesn't faze us."