It’s been a typical tournament for the US men’s national team. Questions abound about Jürgen Klinsmann’s choices. The team has looked at times bereft of attacking ideas. And yet here we are, with one game to go in the group stage of the Copa América, and the math is as simple as it always seems to be: win (or draw), and they’re in.
Standing in their way are Paraguay – according to Fifa and their rankings the weakest team in the group, for whatever that’s worth. It ought to be a straightforward affair for the US, and there are encouraging signs that they are settling into Klinsmann’s latest tactical preference following their 4-0 thrashing of Costa Rica on Monday. (Although it should be said that the US are neither quite as good as that result – they always beat Costa Rica at home – nor as bad as people said following their 2-0 loss to Colombia.)
Despite having to rely for much of the first half on a combination of gritty and occasionally last-gasp defending with few pastures of relief against an opponent dominant in possession, to their credit the US kept Costa Rica’s industry from producing much; they surrendered few clear-cut chances and, as the game wore on, pressured the Ticos into turnovers in their own half.
The back line, arguably for the first time since Klinsmann has taken the reins, appears composed and firm. Apart from falling asleep on an early corner in their opening match against Colombia, the quartet of DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and Fabian Johnson have allowed very little else of substance since late May. Brad Guzan looks revitalized between the posts after a disastrous campaign with Villa, no doubt bolstered by the backs’ staunch defending. In Yedlin and Johnson the US have the pace to negate threats along the wings, but keep in mind that the back four were stretched and dazed by Costa Rica’s all-out assault in the early stages. They will need to be sharper from the whistle against the Albirroja, who may very well copy that blueprint in search of a necessary three points.
With midfielder Oscar Romero out through suspension, Paraguay will lose a bit of bite in the attack. Expect the US midfield to look more commanding in the middle of the pitch as a result, especially if Jermaine Jones is truly back to being the ball-winning dynamo last seen at the World Cup two summers ago. And with Paraguay needing to push for the win to advance, the US would be well served by countering decisively as they did against Costa Rica.
The front three were confident and quick in those situations on Monday, even if their touch often let them down – most glaringly on balls that found the feet of Gyasi Zardes. Clint Dempsey looked talismanic in his slightly removed playmaker role, giving Bobby Wood and Zardes the freedom to roam in search of incisive runs. Paraguay’s Paulo da Silva is an imposing center-back, but at 36 he will have trouble matching the pace of Wood and Zardes if the US find themselves with space on the break.
Where the US are lacking is what will ultimately limit their progression in this tournament: surgical incision in the final third. Wood has shown a better nose for goal since his transformation in Germany, but the US still lack a true, reliable striker. It shouldn’t hurt them against Paraguay, but as we saw in the Colombia match, it’s a glaring problem against better, more organized defenses. Luckily for the US, Paraguay suffers from the same issue, making the route to three points here easier.
But don’t overlook the Albirroja. Thoroughly bossed by Colombia in the first 45 minutes on Monday, they acquitted themselves well after half-time, with the introduction of goalscorer Victor Ayala – the likely replacement for Romero in the starting lineup – paying dividends. Only a couple spectacular saves from Colombian keeper David Ospina kept Paraguay from sniffing a result.
Klinsmann, for once, seems hellbent on running out a consistent lineup until the wheels fall off. Many argued that the opener against Colombia was just such a turning point, but the final scoreline notwithstanding the big frustration for the US was the lack of a cutting edge in attack. Inserting 17-year-old wünderkind Christian Pulisic in place of Zardes seems the most obvious place to start, especially after the latter played himself out of several good chances against Costa Rica. But with advancement to the quarter-finals a very real possibility, don’t expect much, if any tinkering unless things go south in a hurry.
And Klinsmann has earned as much for the moment: if results in the here and now matter, as Sunil Gulati told USA Today earlier this week, three wins from the past four matches is about as good as it gets. Argue with the process all you want – right now Klinsmann has earned a bit of length on that leash. Whether he ultimately chokes himself with it is up to his chosen XI.
This article was written by Tom Gottlieb, for theguardian.com on Saturday 11th June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010