Before Tuesday's trip to Guatemala City, a 1-1 draw might have seemed like an acceptable outcome for the U.S. national team. The Americans, after all, knew they would be facing a hostile environment and desperate opponent. But as it turned out, the result left much to be desired.
Guatemala substitute Marco Pappa's superb 83rd-minute free kick negated Clint Dempsey's first-half tally as the U.S. settled for the tie, moving to 1-0-1 in the semifinal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The U.S. currently sits atop its group, level with Jamaica at four points but ahead on goal differential.
After controlling the match for long stretches in the opening stanza, the U.S. struggled to hold off Guatemala's second-half surge, conceding several opportunities before finally getting burned by Pappa's equalizer.
Stepping over a 25-yard free kick following Fabian Johnson's foul on Carlos Ruiz, the Chicago Fire midfielder curled a left-footed shot over the U.S. wall and past a motionless Tim Howard.
The U.S. went ahead in the 40th minute when Dempsey collected a pass from Johnson, evaded the flailing tackles of two Guatemalan defenders, and slotted a low shot into the back of the net for his 27th international goal and second in as many games.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann offered no surprises in his starting 11, using the same lineup that picked up a 3-1 win over Antigua & Barbuda on Friday with the exception of Johnson, who returned from a calf injury.
Coming off a 2-1 loss to Jamaica to open the stage, Guatemala failed to find much cohesion going forward in the first half, often falling into a defend-and-counter strategy and looking to earn set pieces in the attacking third. The Americans, meanwhile, struggled to find the final ball until Dempsey broke the deadlock.
The strike came just moments after Guatemala had a chance at the other end, with Howard turning away an angled blast from Carlos Figueroa.
Klinsmann used his first swap at the start of the second half, bringing center back Geoff Cameron on for Clarence Goodson, who had picked up a yellow card. Guatemala, on the other hand, used all three of its substitutions, adding attackers Pappa, Manuel Leon and Dwight Pezzarossi.
The gamble paid off. Guatemala found increased confidence going forward as the half went on, and the home side should have leveled the score in the 68th minute. Mario Rodriguez forced a stellar save from Howard off a corner kick and the rebound fell straight to Ruiz, but the veteran striker skied his point-blank rebound effort over the bar.
The U.S. will return to World Cup qualifying in September, with a pair of matches against Jamaica: Sept. 7 in Kingston and Sept. 11 in Columbus, Ohio.