PHILADELPHIA — Last summer, the U.S. national team traveled to Philadelphia to play a game that was perhaps the most frustratingly superfluous in its 100-year history.
Instead of heading home after a stunning loss to Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals, the dispirited Americans were forced to travel from Atlanta and then face Panama for a bronze medal nobody really wanted. The U.S. certainly played like it didn’t want to be at PPL Park (now Talen Energy Stadium), where it lost on penalty kicks.
Asked Thursday afternoon how last year’s trip to Philly compares to this week’s, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann laughed.
“Definitely a big difference, obviously,” he said before training at the University of Pennsylvania. “The spirit is very upbeat. It’s positive.”
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A comprehensive 4–0 triumph in a must-win game will do that. Thanks to Tuesday’s Copa América Centenario rout of Costa Rica, the U.S. (1-1-0) is in prime position to get out of what Klinsmann called “the toughest group here.” Three points against Paraguay (0-1-1) on Friday evening at Lincoln Financial Field will seal the deal. A draw likely will be enough as well, assuming Costa Rica (0-1-1) doesn’t beat Group A-leader Colombia (2-0-0) by at least six goals. A loss means elimination.
Last year in Philadelphia, Klinsmann hit his nadir as U.S. coach. This year, he’s in position to renew his mandate by guiding the Americans to the quarterfinals.
“This is it. This is already a knockout game on Saturday. This is it,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a one-off, and this is our goal, to go through that on Saturday and play the next one-off and learn how to win these one-off games—to mature in our own way towards a World Cup where we can go further.
“Our big dream is to get into a final four of a World Cup, rather sooner than later,” he continued. “And these are the moments where you kind of tell your players, ‘Don’t be nervous about it. There’s no reason to be nervous. But understand that moment. So let’s go out there and just give everything you have.’ Saturday night is a game where you expect the guys to go out there and really give everything have. If they do that, if they bought into this whole process, it’s going to be a very exciting game.”
Paraguay is not a team the U.S. knows very well, although there is history between the two. They faced each other in 1930 at the first World Cup, where Bert Patenaude tallied the first World Cup hat trick as the U.S. clinched a berth in the semis. They met again at the 2007 Copa América in Venezuela, where Los Guaraníes notched a 3–1 win. The most recent meeting came in a March 2011 friendly, four months before Klinsmann took over. Paraguay’s 1–0 win that day in Nashville tied the all-time series, 2-2-2.
“This is a very unpredictable team,” Klinsmann said. “This is a team that have individual players that can hurt you in a split second, like Colombia experienced [on Tuesday]. They thought the job was almost done and voom, [Paraguay] scores that one goal and if they don’t go down to 10 men they were right on the verge to equalize that game. They’re fearless. That’s their nature. Last Copa América, final four. Previous Copa América [in 2011], second place. That tells you who Paraguay is. But I think we’re very well prepared and we are definitely capable to beat them.”
Paraguay traditionally is known for its stout defense, which in this tournament is marshaled by 36-year-old Paulo da Silva and Club América star Miguel Samudio, a left back. But Paraguay certainly created its fair share of scoring chances against Colombia as well and as Klinsmann said, it has “players that can hurt you.” The attack features FC Ingolstadt striker Dario Lezcano and a pair of Liga MX based forwards, Édgar Benítez from Querétaro and Jorge Benítez from Cruz Azul. The Seattle Sounders’ Nelson Valdez has been coming off the bench. Paraguay will be hurt, however, by the absence of suspended playmaker Óscar Romero, who was ejected on Tuesday.
In a rarity under Klinsmann, the U.S. started the same 11 players in two consecutive games, but Tuesday’s first-half switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 offered more balance against a Costa Rican team trying to overcome an early deficit. The Americans’ seamless transition and Bobby Wood’s performance as a center forward were promising and suggest they could be an option on Saturday. Klinsmann also will have to decide how prepared older players like Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey are for a third tense game in nine days.
“The guys are ready for it,” Klinsmann insisted. “They’re all hungry. They’re all sharp.”
During the Copa’s first two games, the U.S. pretty much played to expectations. Klinsmann’s team isn’t yet at the level of Colombia, a World Cup quarterfinalist that entered the tournament ranked third in the world. But the U.S. is better than it showed at last year’s Gold Cup, and it proved that with the rout of Costa Rica. Paraguay presents an interesting litmus test. La Albirroja isn’t considered one of South America’s elite teams. It isn’t Argentina or Brazil. But Paraguay had qualified for four consecutive World Cups before missing out two years ago. It has contended in recent continental championships and certainly is the sort of team the Americans must get used to beating if they hope to make a World Cup final four.
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If the U.S. wins on Saturday and gets out of the group, Klinsmann can claim he’s made progress toward that goal. If they fail, many will argue that the manager hasn’t made nearly enough in five years at the helm.
There is enormous pressure. But these are the games Klinsmann has wanted to coach, and his players definitely prefer them over the consolation slog they faced last year. They handled it beautifully on Tuesday in Chicago and now must do it one more time to reach the knockout stage.
“We always saw the big picture,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “I think the panic button was probably hit by a lot of people on the outside of our camp [after the Colombia loss]. But we always knew the Costa Rica game was going to be a big game for us and we got the result that we needed. But at the same time, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves because we know Saturday’s result is just as important as the Costa Rica game.”