Full disclosure: I only caught the back 45 minutes of the USMNT game against Paraguay, in which they survived going down to 10 men, won 1-0 and sealed their place in the knockout rounds of the Copa America. However, I saw enough to know two things: (a) DeAndre Yedlin still has some learning to do and (b) this team wants to go the distance. There might be some disagreement on what, exactly, “the distance” should be for this team, but more on that later. First, we need to celebrate the U.S. overcoming their 2-0 loss to Colombia by throttling Costa Rica 4-0 and surviving Paraguay 1-0.
After Colombia, I wrote that heading into the Costa Rica match was like the topping the first crest of a roller coaster, when panic tries to set in. Then we beat Costa Rica and it was the part of the ride where you hit the double loop, when it’s exhilarating. Paraguay, on the other hand, was the annoying part where your face is wind-burned and stretched, your shoulders and arms hurt from being jerked around, but you’re smiling as you finish the ride and get back on your feet.
It was a gritty performance by the U.S., particularly after Yedlin received his second yellow. Jermaine Jones continued to be a stalwart (I need to eat my words there), Michael Bradley kept the midfield in order, and John Brooks had perhaps his best game ever. And now the team is deservedly smiling, having not just advanced but topping the group after Colombia underestimated Costa Rica. As a result, Colombia will play Peru, while the U.S. takes on Ecuador for the second time in just over three weeks. Time for a new ride entirely.
That warm-up game against Colombia on May 25th is where it started to become apparent that Jurgen Klinsmann had a plan and this team was starting to click. In the second half, Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe came on as subs, while Michael Bradley dropped back to the defensive midfield role he has occupied since. Although we have not seen nearly enough Pulisic or Nagbe for my taste, Bradley playing as a deep lying playmaker has been his best possible deployment outside of the poor showing versus Colombia. The first game between these two teams ended 1-0 (off of a Nagbe winner just before full time), and the U.S. actually enjoyed at least three other very good chances in front of goal that likely should have been converted.
The main difference now will be that Geoff Cameron, who before the tournament was dealing with a nagging injury, will start at centerback with Brooks as he has throughout the group stage. Their pairing has been a revolution for the U.S. and they should continue to perform at a high level. The biggest question mark is replacing Yedlin, who will be out, forced to serve a one game suspension for his red card. In his place, look for either Michael Orozco at right back or Edgar Castillo at left back and Fabian Johnson switched to right, while the remainder of the starting 11 should be the same. Any more extensive changes would be against the grain, given Klinsmann has started the same 11 for three games in a row now, a first for him.
Another concern for Klinsmann will be yellow card accumulation. Per the Copa America rules, players who received a yellow in the group stage still carry those cards into the quarterfinals. This means that if Orozco, Brooks, Johnson, Bradley, Jones, Bobby Wood or Alejandro Bedoya pick up a yellow against Ecuador, they will be suspended for the semifinal should the U.S. advance. It is a lingering question, whether risking these players to suspension is the right move and to what extent it changes their style of play. Should the U.S. go all out to reach the next round, regardless of who might end up being disqualified from playing?
To answer that question, we should look back to an earlier one: what exactly is “the distance” for this team? Prior to the start of the tournament, Klinsmann said his goal was to reach the semifinal, while many others would have been happy to just advance out of a tough group. Now, though, the U.S. is playing a team they have already defeated, and, if the team were to win, they would go on to play the winner of Argentina/Venezuela. Many probably feel that beating Ecuador should be a reasonable ask and the U.S. should expect to play in the semifinal against (in all likelihood) Argentina. That, to me, would be a reasonable place for this particular adventure to end. A loss to the Messi-led Argentina, which has made no secret of their desire to win this tournament, would not an underachievement.
If losing in the semifinal to Argentina is an acceptable conclusion to the Copa America, the U.S. should leave everything on the field to get there, even if it means risking the suspension of preferred players. It also means that this match against Ecuador is pressure filled with expectation and hope. That is how it should be. The U.S. is showing signs of finally being a truly competitive team, one that fans do not just hope win, but rather, expect to win.
Photo Credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press