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United States forward Clint Dempsey (8) celebrates after scoring a goal in the first half against Guatemala during the semifinal round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer tournament at MAPFRE Stadium. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

World Cup qualifying: US wins a game it couldn't lose, beating Guatemala, 4-0


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The U.S. soccer team's fading World Cup hopes got a much-needed boost Tuesday. And for that coach Juergen Klinsmann can thank one player he has been playing out of position and another who wasn't even on the roster until this week.

Geoff Cameron, moved back to his preferred position in central defense, set up one first-half goal and scored another, and Graham Zusi, making his first appearance with the national team since last summer, scored 20 seconds into the second half, lifting the U.S. to a 4-0 victory over Guatemala in a game the U.S. had to win.

Trailing Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago halfway through the six-game semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, the U.S. couldn't afford to fall further behind after a road loss to Guatemala last week.

And it played like a team with its backs against the wall, showing the kind of intensity and pressure that have been missing as of late. That paid off early with Clint Dempsey, left off the roster for last fall's qualifiers, giving the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute.

Gyasi Zardes set up the goal, taking Guatemala's Moises Hernandez and Rafael Morales with him when he ran under a Cameron long ball in the penalty area. That left Dempsey, who was trailing the play, free and when the ball took a fortunate bounce off Zardes' left shoulder, Dempsey had an open net at which to shoot.

The goal was Dempsey's 14th in World Cup qualifying, setting a U.S. record. He had been tied with Landon Donovan. And it was his sixth goal against Guatemala.

Cameron doubled the lead in the 35th minute, cashing in on a Michael Bradley free kick. It was the fourth national team goal for Cameron, who has scored all of them with his head.

Zusi made it 3-0 seconds after the break, thanks to another fortunate bounce off Zardes. This time the sequence started with DeAndre Yedlin sending a pass into the box on the right side, where Zardes had trouble controlling it. When the ball rolled free, Zusi latched onto it and redirected it into the far corner of the net.

It was his first goal for the national team since October 2013.

Jozy Altidore closed out the scoring with a goal in the 89th minute.

Although the qualifying campaign is back on track for the U.S., there's still plenty of work to be done. The victory lifted the U.S. over Guatemala and into second place in its four-team group with two September qualifiers, against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and group leader Trinidad and Tobago, remaining.

Only the top two teams advance to the final round of qualifying, which begins in November. And with Guatemala only a point back of the U.S., there's little margin for error.

The transformation of the U.S. team may have started by putting Cameron and Yedlin at the positions at which they feel most comfortable. Both played solid defense.

Zusi, a World Cup starter, responded by applying pressure from the midfield in the first half before starting the second half with the goal that put the game away.

As a result, the U.S. may have earned more than a victory Tuesday. It may also have moved toward creating the kind of stability and consistency it has lacked after Klinsmann changed the lineup four times in as many World Cup qualifiers.

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