KANSAS CITY, Kan.— Clint Dempsey is precisely the kind of scrappy player that Jurgen Klinsmann covets on his teams, an attacker who is willing to throw his body around for the greater good.
On Tuesday night, the rest of the United States team played just like him.
Dempsey had a pair of goals and assisted on Carlos Bocanegra’s equalizer, and the U.S. finally showed some of the gritty, proactive style Klinsmann has been preaching to rally past Guatemala 3-1 and reach next year’s final round of World Cup qualifying.
“They understood the moment,” said Klinsmann, who has eschewed the defensive style embraced by former U.S. coach Bob Bradley for one predicated on always moving forward.
“We expected a very difficult qualifying campaign, and that’s what this is,” Klinsmann said. “We made clear we’re the number one team in this group and the next round will be harder.”
Facing their first elimination game in qualifying since 2000 and only second in 23 years, the Americans needed merely a draw to advance to the six-team finals in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The final round also will include Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Jamaica.
After Carlos Ruiz put Guatemala ahead in the fifth minute, Dempsey set up Bocanegra’s goal in the 10th minute, then scored in the 18th and 36th to help the U.S. (4-1-1) — seeking its seventh straight World Cup appearance — top its semifinal group with 13 points.
“We’re excited to get to the next round,” said Dempsey, whose 30 international goals are tied with Brian McBride for third-most in American history. “But we know we need to step up our game.”
Guatemala, which has never appeared in a World Cup, needed only a tie to advance but was eliminated when Dane Richards scored two goals late in the second half in Jamaica’s 4-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda. Guatemala and Jamaica were both 3-2-1 for 10 points apiece, but the Reggae Boyz overtook Guatemala on goal difference, plus-3 to plus-1.
Guatemala coach Ever Hugo Almeida declined to attend a postgame news conference.
“This was my last game,” the 33-year-old Ruiz said. “I want to thank all the team, my family, my fans in Guatemala for all their support. It hurts not to go to a World Cup as a player but I will try to be with my national team in any other ways.”
The U.S. dictated the pace from the opening minute, appearing far more aggressive than it did while struggling to a 2-1 victory over Antigua on a muddy cricket pitch last Friday.
Still, Los Chapines caused tension when they scored in the opening minutes.
Jose Contreras took possession in the midfield and sent a looping pass ahead to Ruiz, who managed to beat Bocanegra to the ball as Geoff Cameron was caught upfield. Ruiz rounded goalkeeper Tim Howard and side-footed the ball into the goal.
As if a harbinger, Ruiz appeared to hurt himself seconds after scoring.
He reached out to steady himself on the electronic signage near the field, and may have sliced his hand. He grimaced and immediately began shaking it while a trainer rushed out to tend to him.
The tying goal came just a few minutes later.
Sporting KC midfielder Graham Zusi, playing in his home stadium, sent a corner kick arcing into the penalty area, and Dempsey got just enough of it at the near post to redirect to Bocanegra, who was left alone by Manuel Leon near the far post and easily found the back of the net.
It was Bocanegra’s 14th goal with the national team, moving him past Marcelo Balboa for the most among American defenders.
It also generated a roar from a sellout crowd of 16,947 that would have been much larger if officials could have sold standing-room tickets.
“We were never going to give up today,” Bocanegra said. “We knew were going to get goals quickly and we got three of them.”
The second came after Ruiz sent a header over the crossbar, and the American came on the counterattack. The ball was pushed ahead to Eddie Johnson on the wing, and he found Dempsey cutting to the net ahead of defender Jonathan Lopez, his goal giving the U.S. a 2-1 lead.
Johnson picked up an assist to go with the two goals he scored against Antigua in his first international appearance in two years.
Guatemala had a couple of other good scoring chances later in the half, including a shot by Contreras from a sharp angle that Howard knocked away, and a breakaway on which Ruiz was called for a foul on defender Steve Cherundolo near the top of the penalty area.
Cherundolo tried to shake hands with Ruiz, who was having none of it.
“We were just discussing what we were going to do after the game,” Cherundolo said, smiling.
The U.S. pressure paid off again in the 36th minute, when Michael Bradley popped a pass over the sprawled-out Jerez and Dempsey tapped the ball across. Dempsey nearly had a hat trick when he just missed on a header early in the second half.
“It felt good after we got off to a slow start,” Dempsey said. “It helps your confidence to get a couple of goals.”
Failing to qualify for the World Cup would have been devastating for the U.S., still trying to regain the confidence it had when reaching the 2002 quarterfinals. The final round starts March 22.
“I think it’s always better when you have very meaningful games and you have to prove yourself,” Klinsmann said. “When there’s something at stake, like a World Cup qualifier, they know they have to be spot on.”
Notes: Klinsmann said he’s not sure how he’ll juggle his roster between qualifying and next summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship. ... Dempsey received a yellow card for diving in second-half stoppage time. ... The Americans likely will play an exhibition at Russia on Nov. 14 in their final game this year. ... Bocanegra joined Cameron at center back, Michael Parkhurst took over on the left and Clarence Goodson was benched in the only American lineup changes from Friday. .. Defender Joe Corona made his first competitive appearance for the U.S.as a 90th-minute substitute, tying him to the American national team. He also had been eligible to play for Mexico. ... The Reggae Boyz needed to make up a three-goal difference on Guatemala in a victory to advance, and Richards’ goals in the 78th and 88th minutes at Kingston allowed them to move forward.