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October 16, 2012
U.S. clinches berth in CONCACAF WCQ final round, where challenges become more difficult

By Michael Lewis Editor

Clint Dempsey scored his 29th and 30 international goals and assisted on another.
Clint Dempsey scored his 29th and 30 international goals and assisted on another.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
KANSAS CITY, Kansas -- It certainly doesn't get any easier from here on.

With one big challenge out of the way, the United States looks toward yet a greater one in 2013 -- reaching the World Cup.

The Americans booked a berth in next year's hexagonal with a 3-1 CONCACAF Group A victory over Guatemala on Tuesday night, overcoming an early one-goal deficit.

Striker Clint Dempsey led the way, setting up the equalizer and connecting on the next two goals in front of a sell-out crowd of 16,947 at Livestrong Sporting Park.

But after the USA's rollercoaster ride through the six semifinal-round games, no one has to remind goalkeeper Tim Howard there still is much work to be done.

"We feel like we're the best team in the region," he said. "Mexico feels like they are. In order to prove that, we've got to go out there and do it every game. You can't have off games. We have to be better at putting together good performances more consistently."

The world will discover that next year, when the U.S. will take on the likes of Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica and Jamaica in the confederation's final round.

The Americans captured the Group A crown with a 4-1-1 record and 13 points, ahead of second-place Jamaica (3-2-1, 10), which also advanced on the strength of its 4-1 home win over Antigua & Barbuda. Guatemala (3-2-1, 10), found itself on the outside, losing out to the Jamaicans by goal differential (plus three to plus one).

The 10-game hexagonal schedule will begin on Feb. 6 and continue through Oct. 15. The top three teams will qualify for the World Cup, with the fourth-place team playing a home-and-away series with the Oceania champion for another berth.

"The hexagonal is going to be as tough as heck," Howard said.

Indeed it will be.

"The key for us in the next round is to do a better job getting points away from home," Dempsey said. "It will take a little bit of pressure off us trying to get results at home.Ē

Tuesday night's encounter was the U.S.ís best of their six semifinal matches. The hosts finished with a similar 3-1 result in their first semifinal match, but the Guatemalans were considered much more difficult opposition.

The Americans came out strong in the beginning. After allowing an early Carlos Ruiz goal, they bounced back and took command, limiting the Guatemalans' opportunities. And when the Chapines managed to fire a shot on goal, Howard was there to make the save.

The U.S. stumbled early on as striker Ruiz, long a thorn in the side of the Americans, silenced in the fifth minute. He took a through ball from Jose Contreras, beat the U.S. defense and went around the left side of the penalty area, forcing Howard to commit himself before he tucked the ball into the unattended net.

"It was just a sloppy goal," Howard said. "There wasn't enough pressure on the ball. We needed to drop our line and probably play it safe but credit to Carlos Ruiz who finished it well. You get frustrated but sometimes the best time for them to score is early on

It took only five minutes for the hosts to knot things up.

Midfielder Graham Zusi, an obvious hometown favorite and standout with Sporting Kansas City, sent a corner kick into the penalty area that Dempsey headed down. Central defender Carlos Bocanegra slotted home the ball past goalkeeper Ricardo Jerez in the 10th minute. His 14th international goal set an American record for defenders, breaking a tie with National Soccer Hall of Fame defender Marcelo Balboa.

"That lifted our spirits," U.S. forward Herculez Gomez said. "You don't want to let a team like Guatemala grow in spirit and grow in confidence. It was important for us to put out that fire."

The U.S. took a 2-1 lead in the 18th minute as Eddie Johnsonís right-wing feed set up an onrushing Dempsey. The forward got a step on defender Jonathan Lopez and knocked the ball home from point-blank range.

In the 36th minute, Gomez found an open Michael Bradley on the right side of the area. The central midfielder fired a shot that Dempsey met off the post and put away for his second goal of the match and 30th of his international career for a 3-1 lead in the 36th minute.

Dempsey was encouraged by how the team bounced back.

"It was not the ideal start for us, but I thought we showed a lot of character bouncing back from that creating chances and finishing the chances we got," he said.

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