“What I’m proud about with this team is the character they showed, the determination, the heart,” said Clint Dempsey (above), the first-half goal scorer.
By Mitchell Moss
Late last Saturday night, two hours after they had clinched a Copa America Centenario quarterfinal berth, U.S. national soccer team players and the coaching staff gathered in the meal room at a Center City Philly hotel to watch the final tense moments of the other match in their first-round group.
The Americans’ next destination depended on the outcome of Costa Rica-Colombia. Before that game, Jurgen Klinsmann’s crew figured they would head 90 miles north to the Meadowlands as the second-place finisher.
But when the Ticos’ upset was complete, dropping Colombia into second and elevating the U.S. squad into first, the Americans began making plans for Seattle. Their opponent tonight would not be determined for another 24 hours (it wound up being Ecuador), allowing them to catch their breath and reflect on a whirlwind first round.
From brink of elimination to first place in the tournament’s most-balanced group, the Americans played with purpose and passion in harrowing circumstances. They survived a man disadvantage for almost the entire second half during the 1-0 victory over Paraguay, and although a draw would have been enough to push them through, they exhibited indomitable traits that helped compensate for other shortfalls.
“What I’m proud about with this team is the character they showed, the determination, the heart,” Clint Dempsey, the first-half goal scorer, told the Washington Post.
In international soccer, it’s not uncommon for a team under the same stewardship for a long period to stop responding. Motivational speeches fall on deaf ears and in-game direction is dismissed. Whether it was Klinsmann’s connection to them or their own sense of pride, the players answered the call after a 2-0 defeat to Colombia in the group opener.
Klinsmann did not give up the fight, either. On the sideline, he was animated and emotional, encouraging his charges, stirring up the crowd and slapping the transparent roof protecting the bench.
“It’s a team that is having a good time and is there for each other,” said the German-born coach, who took the U.S. job almost five years ago. “The whole bench is right there [supporting the active players]. It’s just fun to watch.”
Advancing to the elimination round also probably saved Klinsmann’s job. After a year of disappointing results in important competitions, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said last week that fortunes needed to turn soon. With more than two months between this tournament and the resumption of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the time was ripe for a coaching change.
But by steering the team to the quarterfinals, Klinsmann is back in good standing. The challenge before him now is winning a knockout-round match. The Americans have failed to take the next step in the past two World Cups, losing in extra time in the round of 16 to Ghana and Belgium, respectively.
“The old story is the underdog story, and I cannot hear that story anymore,” Klinsmann said. “I want to see them risk things. Let’s go for it. Because if you’re not going for it, sooner or later they are going to break you down.
“The knockout stage is very mental-driven. It’s an absolute mental game. . . . This is all about the moment, and this is what they need to believe in. No matter who is on the other side, ‘I’m ready for you.’ This is what we would love to see. Now it’s becoming a mental learning curve.”
The Americans will have to press forward without right back DeAndre Yedlin, whose red card early in the second half Saturday resulted in expulsion and a one-game suspension.
Klinsmann could stay with Michael Orozco, who filled Yedlin’s spot upon the ejection. Fabian Johnson could move to the right from the left, opening space for natural left back Edgar Castillo. That would maintain attacking elements on both corners. (Orozco does not have as much mobility.)
Geoff Cameron has right-side experience, but he has worked so well with John Brooks in central defense, Klinsmann probably would prefer not to split them up. If he does, Matt Besler or Steve Birnbaum would step in.
These, however, are decisions to be reached in the Pacific Northwest — a destination the Americans were skeptical of reaching after the slow start to the tournament.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity for our team now to play these type of games,” Klinsmann said. “It’s grow, grow, grow and rise to the occasion. We have nothing to lose. . . . Why not be courageous? Why not put on pressure and give them a game?”