PHILADELPHIA—What a difference a week makes.
Eight days ago, the conversation surrounding the US national team was whether they’d even make it to the Copa America Centenario quarterfinals. After a wild night, that saw the Americans hold on for a shorthanded win against Paraguay and pip Colombia to top Group A, the question now becomes just how far can Jurgen Klinsmann’s team go?
Despite a DeAndre Yedlin red card that saw the US play the final 42 minutes of regulation and six minutes of stoppage time down a man, the hosts will now play one of Brazil, Ecuador or Peru in Seattle on Thursday (9:30pm ET; FS1, UniMás) with a place in the semifinals on the line.
“This is a huge statement to teams in South America or whoever watches it on TV,” Klinsmann said. “This team has fantastic spirit, they have character.”
And now, after back-to-back wins under pressure against Costa Rica and Paraguay, the US have an opportunity to make real noise in a tournament some thought they were on the brink of crashing out days and even hours ago. After responding with their backs against the wall, they're well positioned to accomplish the goal that Klinsmann set out before Copa America began: qualifying for the semifinals, and perhaps even winning the whole thing.
It’s a far cry from the mounting panic that accompanied a 2-0 tournament-opening loss to Colombia.
“The goal for us was always to take these three games and manage our way through them,” said US captain Michael Bradley. “Obviously there’s no telling exactly how things go. You prepare a tournament in the best possible way. Everyone wants to get off to a good start. Not everybody does. In those moments, it’s the reaction, the mentality to respond in a good way.”
That mentality carried the US on a steamy night in Philadelphia. Thanks to a defining defensive performance from John Brooks, a vintage Clint Dempsey goal set up by Gyasi Zardes, some clutch stops from goalkeeper Brad Guzan and tireless work from the whole team, the US kept Paraguay from storming back and booking their own place in the quarterfinals at the Yanks' expense.
“What heart these guys showed tonight, going a man down and playing for 45 minutes and staying compact and just battling for each other,” said Dempsey, who is now six goals (51) behind Landon Donovan on the all-time list. “The calls weren’t going our way. Just to be able to keep fighting and see the game out. It wasn’t like we conceded and we were really holding on. They needed two goals. To get the clean sheet and the win, six points from three games, we’re proud of that.”
Proud, but certainly not satisfied.
This is exactly the sort of situation – an opportunity to make a deep tournament run against the game’s traditional powers – that Klinsmann envisioned when he took the job in 2011 and when he brought the US to Germany, Holland or Bosnia to take on world-class competition. Now is the time, he said, to prove that the US belongs among the big boys.
“The whole old story is the underdog story. I cannot hear that story anymore.” Klinsmann said. “I want to see them risk things. Let’s go for it. If you’re not going for it, sooner or later they are going to break you down because they have class players. So no, take the game to them. That’s the learning curve. The knockout stage is mental driven. It’s an absolute mental game. It’s when you step on the field and see certain jerseys, it’s kind of sniffing at each other and saying, ‘I’m ready for you.’ This is all about the moment, and this is what they need to believe in.”
Whose jersey the US will sniff on Thursday at CenturyLink Field depends on what happens Sunday night in Group B.
Brazil (4 pts, +6 GD) are currently in the driver’s seat ahead of their group finale against Peru (4 pts), and would almost certainly advance to a quarterfinal against Colombia at MetLife Stadium with a win or draw. Should the Seleção draw or lose, the US could face either Peru or Ecuador (2 pts), who face already-eliminated Haiti.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our team now to play these type of games and just grow and rise to the occasion. We have nothing to lose,” Klinsmann said. “If it’s Brazil, they are the big-time favorites. Five-time world champs and blah blah blah. We love them, but why not go at them? Why not being courageous? Why not putting pressure on them and give them a game? This is what we are going to prepare for. Every team has weaknesses.”