The same players who had disappointed against Colombia last Friday delivered in Chicago. Michael Bradley was a potent midfield puppeteer, setting up a forward line that now worked in unison rather than isolation. The attack had sly ideas and a serrated edge.
Overall, there was an assertiveness, a strutting self-belief, that had been entirely absent in the 2-0 loss to Colombia. While much of the improvement must be attributed to facing weaker opponents, this was a resolute and fluent performance for a head coach who had been placed under increased pressure by comments from his boss earlier in the day.
The victory will count for nothing if the US lose to Paraguay in their final Group A encounter in Philadelphia on 11 June, but win and Jürgen Klinsmann’s side are sure to progress. Few would bet against them now.
“We think they deserve a huge, huge compliment for tonight’s performance,” Klinsmann said, adding that he believes this is the most difficult group in the tournament.
“It took a little bit to kind of grind ourselves into the game in the first 15-20 minutes but once the first goal came we kept pushing for the next one and then pushing for the next one.”
Klinsmann kept the same line-up that he insisted produced a creditable performance against Colombia, never mind the scoreline. “We had the luxury finally to send the same XI out. We switched after half an hour, the system, we went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2; fluid, no problem,” he said. “You can see they start to smell each other and make runs off each other.”
Chicago is almost the definition of home advantage: the US Soccer Federation’s headquarters are a 10-minute walk from the stadium where Klinsmann’s team won the 2013 Gold Cup.
The city has a fervent fanbase exemplified by the massive viewing parties for the 2014 World Cup, and the team’s record against Concacaf teams at Soldier Field now stands at played six, won six.
Unlike Friday’s loss to Colombia at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the crowd was dominated by US fans. But with an attendance of 39,642, the stadium was less than two-thirds full – an indicator of the lack of buzz surrounding the team and tournament and that tickets were overpriced.
Still, those who did turn up saw a match that immediately confounded predictions of a tight, dour encounter.
Joel Campbell set the tone when he ran at the heart of the US defence straight from kickoff. In the fifth minute, the Arsenal forward arrived unnoticed by three defenders to hook a bouncing ball just wide of Brad Guzan’s goal from the edge of the area.
That scare jerked the Americans into life and two minutes of sustained pressure were rewarded with a penalty when Cristian Gamboa pushed Bobby Wood as they tussled over a high cross. Clint Dempsey coolly sent the goalkeeper the wrong way for his 50th international goal.
“The important thing is that we got the win tonight and we’re still in the tournament,” Dempsey said.
While Costa Rica looked capable of unhinging the American back line almost every time they went forward, the game was an urgent, open encounter that ill-suited a team that habitually ekes out narrow victories with a safety-first approach. Costa Rica also clearly missed injured goalkeeper Keylor Navas and suspended defender Kendall Waston.
With 25 minutes gone, Gyasi Zardes burst through on the left but a heavy touch took him too far wide and he could only direct his shot into the side-netting. The Los Angeles Galaxy forward was wayward from a better position seven minutes later, thrashing a shot over the from bar eight yards.
No matter: soon after the impressive Jermaine Jones curled an effort narrowly wide of the far post, his aim was true from a similar position as Dempsey teased a frazzled defence and found the Colorado Rapids man, who swept a low shot beyond Patrick Pemberton in goal.
Until Tuesday, Costa Rica had not conceded more than once in any of their past 15 fixtures. They were 3-0 down before half-time as Wood made the points safe when he was allowed space to turn on the edge of the box and fire low past Pemberton.
The US defence looked less solid than it had against Colombia, who showed limited ambition once they had scored twice. Celso Borges ought to have pulled a goal back 10 minutes into the second period, but shot high. Bryan Ruiz then hit the post with a header.
But it was the US who rounded off the night with three minutes to go, the substitute Graham Zusi providing a goal that put the exclamation point on a resounding victory.
Given the news earlier in the day, it was precisely what Klinsmann needed. “The results over the last 18 months, overall, have not been what we would’ve hoped for - especially in the official competitions,” the US soccer federation president, Sunil Gulati, told reporters before the game. “There are things, overall, in his role as technical director, we think we’ve made good advances on… But we need to win games, and we need to win games in competitive play.”
On the one hand, that much is obvious; but in his diplomatic, understated way, it was significant that Gulati stressed short-term success and the need to compete with the world’s best nations - obvious targets that have sometimes been shrouded by the head coach’s misty talk of bright futures and brilliant youth.
And by short-term, he appeared to mean this month, which at least gives added weight to the question of whether Klinsmann will survive the summer if the hosts exit at the group stage.
But a failure that had seemed worryingly plausible before kick-off now seems unlikely. Afterwards, Klinsmann talked about watching Argentina beat Chile on Monday and feeling wowed by the pace and technique on display. While his charges do not look capable of reaching such levels of excellence, this result underlined that they can still overcome lesser opponents with steel and style when they have to.
This article was written by Tom Dart at Soldier Field, Chicago, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th June 2016 03.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010