KANSAS CITY, Kansas --
The United States booked a spot in next year's final round of World Cup qualifying in style with a convincing 3-1 triumph over Guatemala last night, but the Americans realized they will have to improve if they want to reach Brazil in 2014.
Striker Clint Dempsey, who led an American comeback from an early deficit with two goals and an assist, knows that more than anyone.
"We know there's still a lot of work to be done,'' he said. "There's still some things to work on. We know we can be better and we know we can sharpen up and be at our best to qualify for the World Cup. The next round is going to be tough. We're going to do everything we can and not let this opportunity slip by.''
The Americans took their first step by clinching the CONCACAF 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 & Barbdua. Guatemala (3-2-1, 10) found itself on the outside, losing out to the Jamaicans by goal differential (plus three to plus one).
Also advancing to next year's final round were Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras. The 10-game 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 game was the Americans' best of their six semifinal matches.
"At least we went out in style," goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
"They understood the moment,'' U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "'We expected a very difficult qualifying campaign. We made clear we're the number one team in this group and the next round will be harder.'''
The U.S. Team did not exactly get off on the right foot as striker Carlos Ruiz, long a thorn in the side of the U.S., stunned and silenced the sellout crowd of 16,947 at Livestrong Sporting Park in the fifth minute. He took a through ball from Jose Contreras, beat the U.S. defense, went around the left side of the penalty area, forcing goalkeeper Tim Howard to commit himself, before he tucked the ball into the unattended net.
"That was sloppy defending all around,'' Howard said. "A little bit disheartening, but obviously we didn't let our heads go down.''
The Americans tied it five minutes later. Graham Zusi, a hometown favorite and standout with Sporting Kansas City, sent a corner kick into the penalty area that Dempsey headed down. Defender Carlos Bocanegra slotted home the ball past goalkeeper Ricardo Jerez in the 10th minute.
"Luckily we got a quick goal, a pretty quick goal to respond,'' striker Herculez Gomez said. "That lifted our spirits. 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.''
Dempsey wasn't finished. Gomez found an open Michael Bradley on the right side of the penalty area and the central midfielder fired a shot that Dempsey redirected for his second goal of the match and 30th of his international career for a 3-1 lead in the 36th minute.