KANSAS CITY, KAN. – The calculus is simple: when Clint Dempsey has a big game, the Americans get a big win.
The Americans rode two goals and an assist from their most valuable player into the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying tonight, beating Guatemala 3-1. The win righted a sputtering campaign that saw the Yanks taking it all the way down to the wire. But the night's result will not answer a host of questions that remain hovering around Jurgen Klinsmann's team.
The manager has until March to answer them, but answer them he must. Tonight showed the best and the worst of the USA , a team of sure heart and uncertain skills. Most pressing has to be the USA's uncanny ability to put themselves in a hole.
While the American Outlaws taunted the Guatemalans with chants of "You're not going to Brazil," one suspects they should mind their words. The Americans still make too many technical errors, leave too many gaps and make too many poor first touches to be considered anything close to a complete team. Tonight the truth is that their two best players - Dempsey and Bradley - lifted them out of an abyss, covering up for a host of errors in the back.
Consider it took only five minutes and two gaffes to put the USA behind the eight ball, with the back line conspiring to gift Carlos Ruiz an early goal. One could see Tim Howard's shoulders slump from up in the cheap seats, his body language as he got off the floor with the ball in the net saying plainly: "not again."
The fortunate thing is that the Americans were playing against Guatemala, a team that had not beaten them since 1988. Against a Holland or a Spain, the match may have ended right there, but the Yanks were able to race down the field to level up only five minutes later.
Hometown hero Graham Zusi sent in corner that Dempsey headed down and into Bocanegra for a shockingly easy tap-in. Nine minutes later, Michael Bradley carried water so Eddie Johnson could feed Dempsey right to left for a sliding goal that sent the American Outlaws into fits. Dempsey added the capper in the 36th when Bradley again did most of the work, neatly chipping to the far post over a sprawled defender for the easy tap in.
It all sounds quite nice, and in the confines of a sold-out and raucous Livestrong Park, it certainly wasn't dull. But was it quality soccer? Was it the kind of effort good enough to compete in the next round? No, it was not.
In fact, some of the gaffes were comical. Johnson's whiff on an inch-perfect pass from Herculez Gomez. The ball that was sent in and somehow eluded every single American inside the Guatemala penalty area. The cute flip that somehow dipped over the leaping Dempsey. That stuff was at least funny. The backpasses, the blown assignments, the sight of Americans on the flank getting torched - not so much.
When the Yanks looked in control, pretty much from the hour mark on, it was because the game was well won. Guatemala was forced to push forward to get a goal, opening up huge gaps in the back. This allowed the Americans some time to knock the ball around and, conveniently, take some pressure off their fretful defense. It also gave folks some time to forget what had happened just a half hour prior.
Memory is fleeting, but if American fans really think their team can ride two or three key players to Brazil this next year, they should think again. Like it or not, the Klinsmann project has yet to gel; at best, this team is incomplete. But there has to be some accounting of the players, all of whom are professionals, most with halfway decent clubs. The lack of sharpness they have shown in meaningful games is disturbing.
Tonight, Dempsey and Bradley got the job done, and American soccer averted disaster. But the questions remain. Fans had better hope Klinsmann can either find some answers - or some other players.