WASHINGTON - Like most World Cup qualifiers, it was tactical and cautious. Like many games against Guatemala, it had an ugly undertone, too.
And then, reduced to 10 men, the U.S. national team created the game's decisive moment with pro panache.
Yesterday's 1-0 victory by the team in sold-out RFK Stadium's revved-up atmosphere - with most Guatemalan backers in the upper deck, most U.S. fans in the lower - contained a little bit of everything both grand and grating about soccer.
The highlight for U.S. fans was forward Brian McBride's 6-yard goal in the 72nd minute off two long, precise passes from midfielder Jovan Kirovski at midfield and Cobi Jones on the right flank.
The effort cost McBride a cracked shin guard and big bruise after onrushing goalkeeper Edgar Estrada decked him. But the play reflected pro skills at their best: Jones juking a defender at the edge of the box and ignoring forward Joe-Max Moore's near-post run to chip across the box to the unmarked McBride, who drew the keeper and tapped home under him.
The victory, with 51,996 in attendance, came before the third-largest crowd to watch a U.S. World Cup qualifier.
With the win, the U.S. team (2-1-0) probably needs to win only one of its remaining two qualifiers to advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup from North and Central America and the Caribbean. The next match, against Costa Rica, is in Columbus, Ohio, next month, followed by a visit to Barbados, which the Americans beat, 7-0, last month.
U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, inactive most of the afternoon, made his one big save on an 8-yard header in the 86th minute. For the most part, the American defense was solid, allowing little penetration of its box by the largely counter-attacking visitors.
After the game, at least two U.S. players were uncharacteristically outspoken about what they said was incessant fouling - both on and off the ball - by Guatemala, especially during the second half.
American captain Claudio Reyna, who had to leave the game three minutes after McBride's goal because of a cleat-to-knee sliding tackle by midfielder Everaldo Valencia, had the most heated words.
"It was a reckless, reckless challenge, and [Mexican referee Ulises Rangel] didn't call anything," said Reyna, a key player for the Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. "All over the world, though, it's officiating - there's no consistency. ... It was a 50-50 ball, and I went in fair for it and [Valencia] didn't. ... He was clearly trying to injure me."
Rangel did flash a yellow card warning at Valencia, however.
Seven minutes earlier, he had ejected U.S. sub Eddie Lewis for an elbow to a defender's face, also at midfield. Lewis, who plays in England, will miss the next U.S. game, as will midfielder Earnie Stewart, who got his second yellow of the qualifying round in the first half.
"There were all kinds of things going on off the ball," said Moore, who was sporting a small, freshly treated gash on his forehead. "These games are always going to be nasty. That's the way it always is against Guatemala, for some reason."
U.S. coach Bruce Arena complimented the Guatemalans for what he said he told his players "would be a 1-0 game," and declined to be drawn into an officiating controversy.
Rangel whistled each team for 15 fouls, giving five yellow-card warnings, three to Guatemala.
Yesterday's scoreless first half provided some entertaining but frustrating moments for the Americans, who had an 8-3 edge in shots for the half and 16-8 for the game.
But, repeating their first-half performance in a 1-1 tie in Guatemala, the U.S. could not find the target.