Four games into a potential 16-game World Cup qualifying journey, the United States is still alive after Tuesday night's 4-0 win over Guatemala in the national team's fortress of Columbus, Ohio, courtesy of goals by Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore.
Going into the game, this was hardly a given. The fetid 2-0 loss in Guatemala City on Friday very much imperiled the Americans' passage into the final round of qualifiers, beginning in November. A loss would have probably doomed their quest to reach an eighth straight World Cup and possibly ended Jurgen Klinsmann's jumbled 4½-year spell as head coach.
Instead, the Yanks remain masters of their own destiny – with two games to play against Trinidad and Tobago and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in September – and Klinsmann's job seems secure for a while longer, no matter how far below expectations he continues to perform.
Klinsmann inserted five new names into his lineup, made two positional tweaks and switched to a more positive 4-3-3 formation. The changes paid off, even though it meant yet more tinkering with a team that never seems to get to play in the same setup twice in a row. Kyle Beckerman's insertion into the midfield freed Michael Bradley to run the game, alongside the recalled Graham Zusi. The three forwards in front of them kept the field wide and opened up pockets for the U.S. to make pass through.
What's more, the Americans finally made a sharp and energetic start, avoiding the early-game swoons that have hamstrung them so often lately. They charged and pressed hard and pinned the Chapines back deep in their own half. It paid dividends early.
In the 12th minute, Cameron hoisted a long ball up to the streaking Gyasi Zardes, who managed to occupy two defenders, neither of whom could head the ball away. It then fell kindly – possibly off Zardes's backside, it was hard to tell – for the onrushing Dempsey, who punished this defensive malpractice by riffling it past goalkeeper Paulo Motta.
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It was Dempsey's 14th career goal in World Cup qualifying, breaking Landon Donovan's U.S. record. His trademark fury was on display in both the finish and his goal celebration, underscoring the relief by the frustrated Americans.
Ten minutes before halftime, Bobby Wood made an assertive run at the Guatemalan defense and was brought down. Bradley swung the free kick into no-man's land between the defense and Motta, where Cameron nodded it home authoritatively.
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Then, just before halftime, Wood had a wide-open opportunity. The ball had hit him in the arm, but it wasn't called and he was all alone in front of Motta. But he sliced his finish rather comically.
Bobby Wood. Sir. What is this. https://t.co/Nb1Ujy2tcX
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But right after the break, the Americans set about finishing off the job they had started. And within seconds, DeAndre Yedlin, returned to his natural right back position, made yet another aggressive run forward to create an overload situation, and he cut the ball inside for Zardes. The Los Angeles Galaxy star took a heavy touch, but Zusi was there to pounce on the loose ball to make it 3-0 USA.
Late on, Klinsmann brought on the 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, committing the Borussia Dortmund wunderkind to the American program – over his ancestral Croatia. And Ethan Finlay was wrongly denied a goal in front of his home crowd for a botched offside call.
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But then, in the 89th minute, Dempsey won the ball high up the field and set up Altidore, who scored with a well-placed shot.
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The win was cathartic and relieved pressure that had swollen to a fever pitch. But it was just as much enabled by the fecklessness of the Guatemalans as it was by an improved and more spirited American performance. For the first near-hour of the game, the visitors sat so deep that they had far too much field to traverse whenever they won the ball to be dangerous. They mustered virtually nothing that threatened Brad Guzan's goal, making it all the more baffling that the U.S. somehow succeeded in losing to this same team on Friday.
Nor were the Americans anything resembling perfect. While they were fairly efficient with their chances, their cleanliness on the ball left something to be desired. This game may yet prove to offer more of a placebo effect than a cure to this team's many ailments. Klinsmann's side remains one fundamentally devoid of structure and, all too often, of an overarching philosophy – let alone much tactical savvy or attacking sophistication.
It remains disconcerting that a team with pretentions of being a real player on the global soccer stage like the U.S. should lose quite handily to the 95th-ranked team in the world just days earlier &ndahs; especially in the context of the pesky absence of stylistic progress, the woeful underperformance at last summer's Gold Cup and the failure to qualify for the Confederations Cup in a playoff with Mexico in October.
Which is to say that the American and Klinsmann's bacon has been saved and qualification is back on track – they leapfrogged Guatemala with the win to stake the second of four places, which entitles the holder to a spot in the final round of World Cup qualifiers. But while the immediate crisis may be over, for now, all is not well.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.