GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- The Easter festivities are well under way here in Guatemala City. As such, the bustling activity that one normally associates with a metropolitan area of more than 4.5 million inhabitants has been considerably less than usual. Traffic has been relatively light and the streets have been quiet.
But on Friday the entire nation will crackle to life and its attention focused on the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores, where the U.S. and Guatemala will contest a World Cup qualifier. Having already lost at home to Trinidad & Tobago earlier in qualifying, this match means everything to Los Chapines.
"It's all they've been talking about for the past two weeks," said Todd D. Robinson, the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, who attended the U.S. training session Thursday. "The Guatemalans understandably feel like their backs are up against the wall after the tough match against Trinidad & Tobago. They recognize it's an uphill battle given how strong the U.S. team is."
The Guatemala national team has experienced a steady decline in the past decade. They last reached the final round Hexagonal in 2006, when they finished fifth and narrowly missed out on the playoff spot that went to T&T. More recently, their results have been harder to stomach. Guatemala barely got by Bermuda and Antigua & Barbuda in earlier World Cup qualifying rounds and showed poorly at last summer's Gold Cup. Manager Ivan Sopegno soon stepped down, replaced by Walter Claveri.
Los Chapines have since recorded friendly victories against Honduras and El Salvador, sparking a bit of hope in the Guatemala camp. The stakes in this match have seen the Guatemalan Liga Nacional allow the national team players to participate in an extended training camp to better develop some chemistry ahead of Friday's match.
"They will give you a fight," said U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann during a roundtable with reporters Thursday. "They will be feisty, they will be aggressive. They will play their game in the best way possible. We have to stay focused, and not giving anything away and not getting provoked and not losing our minds with whatever.
"In all fairness to [Claveri], he's trying to get more of a playing style. He would like to get more possession, not only long balls, not only sniffing around the box getting free kicks and kind of playing for second balls. To what extent he's able to do that depends on his players."
The U.S. will encounter a smattering of familiar faces, including striker Carlos Ruiz, whose suspension for striking a referee in a league match back in November was recently reduced to six games, allowing him to participate in Friday's match. FC Dallas defender Moises Hernandez is also a key contributor, as is Colorado Rapids midfielder Marco Pappa.
It was Pappa's free kick nearly four years ago that allowed Guatemala to salvage a 1-1 home draw against the U.S. Klinsmann is determined to avoid a repeat of that result this time, both on Friday, and in the return encounter in Columbus, Ohio, the following Tuesday. Two wins would see the U.S. essentially clinch passage to the next qualifying round. History indicates that this will be difficult. The U.S. has won only once in Guatemala to go along with five draws.
"We want six points," he said.
It looks increasingly likely that the U.S. will have to do so without defender/midfielder Fabian Johnson. Johnson sustained a groin injury last week while playing with club side Borussia Moenchengladbach. Though Klinsmann insisted on Thursday that Johnson would be available, the sight of Johnson training separately from the rest of the team was a strong hint that this isn't the case.
The news is better for striker Jozy Altidore, who returned to the field last weekend with club side Toronto FC. He has been training fully all week in his bid to recover from an injured hamstring, though it remains to be seen the extent of his role on Friday.
The rest of the team looks healthy, meanwhile, and Klinsmann knows that his side will need to match Guatemala's energy in order to get a positive result.
"You see that [Claveri is] trying to give younger players a chance, and they want to thank him for that with high energy, with a lot of commitment, with a lot of aggressiveness," said Klinsmann. "But that's what you get anyway.
"In our recent games we played them, we always had our issues the first 20-30 minutes until hopefully we score a goal. But especially away from home, that can go a longer period of time. They will give it everything they have. It's their last chance tomorrow."