What a glorious thing pressure is.
In the days following their limp opening day loss to Colombia, in which they saw a lot of the ball and did nothing with it, it might have been easy for the US’s players to succumb to the gloom engulfing all discussion of football in this country. Losing to Colombia caused all the frustrations associated with five years of halting progress under Jürgen Klinsmann to come suppurating out: the big off-field promises, the meager on-field outcomes, the enervating Jürgenvness – all hand-waving and hoping for the best – of the coach’s management of a playing group of inconsistent quality. The football-supporting public was at breaking point.
But succumb the team did not. Just the opposite, in fact: with their tournament on the line, their coach in danger of losing his job, their very identity as a team in question, the embarrassment of exiting a tournament on home soil in the first round looming, anxiety over the quality of the next generation of playing talent at a pitch, the public angry and impatient at the enduring stasis of the national team, and the future of the sport in America, seemingly, in the balance, the US men’s national team thrived. They delivered the kind of quick-witted, counter-punching performance that has been often pledged, and seldom delivered, during Klinsmann’s reign. If this is what this team can do with their backs to the wall, it may be wise to keep the wall within reach.
This was a performance that mixed the best of US football’s traditional combativeness with a new set of qualities: mobility, clever movement off the ball, width, and lethal finishing. This victory was built on more than just lumping the ball forward and hoping for the best; it wasn’t about big men crashing through or wearing the opponent down through superior physicality. There was genuine craft and guile to the team’s play, the goals, and the way they were constructed. Old Soccer, meet New Football.
There had been considerable clamor for Klinsmann to change his starting lineup from the 11 players who had labored through the torpor of the opening match. Klinsmann ignored the crowd and stuck to his convictions, convinced as he was that the US had in fact played well against Colombia – the two goals conceded aside. Does Jürgen know? On the evidence of last night, he does – because this was a victory built on the contributions of those most under pressure following the loss on Friday.
There were impressive displays from Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, but this was a victory, above all, for the team’s veteran wing: if last night proves anything, it’s that in the US men’s national team, the old dudes are definitively back. Michael Bradley, who’s only 28 but has been an established presence in the national team for a decade, was less influential in this game than he had been against Colombia, but that’s a good thing, because his influence on Friday had been almost totally negative. Here Bradley tidied up his defensive game and offered small glimmers of quality going forward: his raking, 50-yard cross-field pass in the buildup to Wood’s goal, in particular, was a thing of no small beauty. 29-year-old Alejandro Bedoya brought an elastic enthusiasm to the wing that had been almost completely absent in the narrow, plodding, possession-for-possession’s-sake display the US midfield gave against Colombia. At his best the Nantes winger, bulge-eyed and scurry-footed in his darts down the flank, reminds me of a particularly well-paid marmot.
Mainly, though, it was Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey – at 34 and 33, both by now authentic geriatrics – who provided the most emphatic rebuttal to the team’s many boo boys. From Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open to latter Three-Peat Michael Jordan, Late Federer or – better still – Late Pirlo, the spectacle of old guys scaling the athletic heightsprovides sport with one of its most instantly engaging narratives.
Jones and Dempsey have a way to go before they join that august company, but on the evidence of Tuesday night, they’re well on the way. A chopstick in the spokes of any forward movement from Los Ticos’ midfield, Jones hustled energetically from box to box all night, sniping and swarming and harassing and haranguing with all the energy of an airport cabbie in a country with lax taxi regulations. He capped his display with a precise, first-time finish for the second goal, but it says everything that he created the chance, essentially, himself, via some determined pressing when Costa Rica had the ball and a lung-busting run to provide support in the final third. Never has a middle-aged man in dreadlocks performed better on a football field.
Dempsey, meanwhile, seemed liberated by the early penalty and produced some of his best moments in a US shirt throughout the first half. The former Fulham star has never been an out-and-out striker; even during his salad days he operated more often as a hybrid forward-playmaker, an all-purpose creator-in-chief with the license to roam across the front line and into the space behind. Klinsmann’s plan, we can assume, was to use him in a similar way. Against Colombia, this failed spectacularly. Dempsey’s creative spirit was shackled by the leadenness and ineptitude of those around him; eventually he was left with little option but to try his luck from distance. Last night, by contrast, he finally had a willing support cast out of midfield to enable his passing artistry to flourish. And flourish it did, with thrilling efficiency.
Earlier in his career Dempsey had the neat hair, easy skills and sunny charm of a southern matinee idol. The Texan drawl and the buzzcut endure, but now there’s a darkness to the veteran front man, an edge of cynicism perhaps: the eyes sink deeper, his face is more gaunt and lined, and he stands over every dead ball, watchful and still, as if meditating on some dark conspiracy. In many respects he is the closest thing this US team has to a character off Game of Thrones – a master schemer plotting from the shadows. Here he was at the peak of his powers, and little of what made this such a complete performance from the US – the pressing, the lightning counter-attacks, the ball rotation, the snappy combination plays – would have been possible without him. If Bradley is the US team’s heart, Dempsey is its brain.
A word of caution, and a trite one at that: this victory alone does not solve everything that ails the US national team. Klinsmann’s substitutions and formation changes continue to baffle. Individual errors cost the team on Friday, but their simple inverse – individual brilliance – won the day against Costa Rica. This was a victory in the mode Klinsmann likes: a victory for individual virtuosity rather than tactics or the collective plan. Depending on veterans to defy the years and recapture the zest of old is not, in any event, a viable tactical strategy – in the long run or even, really, or the remainder of the Copa.
Besides, sharper finishing from Los Ticos might have made things a little edgier in the opening stages of the second half. Costa Rica demand respect: they’re a team with two top attacking talents – Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell – and they gave a more than respectable account of themselves in Brazil two years ago. But they were also, let’s not forget, comfortably outplayed in their first game in this tournament, against Paraguay – the final scoreline notwithstanding. Los Guaraníes will present a sterner test than Los Ticos did last night.
If the US can recapture this form on Saturday, they will advance from the group comfortably. But consistency has always been the great weakness of this team, which is perhaps why it always seems either on the brink of despair or bound for glory. If the US’s results too often get thrown into the kind of reductive filter that deprives analysis of any nuance – Jürgen bad! Jürgen good! Jones past it! Jones world-class! – that’s because the results and performances of the team under Klinsmann have themselves been similarly helter-skelter. Which US team will we see at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday: the team that dawdles on the ball, gets caught in possession and appears clueless in the final third, or the team from Tuesday night? It’s impossible to predict, but in the meantime, the team’s veterans – like their maligned coach – can drink long on the satisfaction that their obsolescence, long declared and much welcomed, has not dawned just yet. This dog do, in fact, hunt.
This article was written by Aaron Timms, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th June 2016 14.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010