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USA fends off Paraguay, reaches Copa America quarterfinals

John Brooks, Clint Dempsey and Brad Guzan all played vital roles as a 10-man USA held off Paraguay in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. overcame playing down a man for 42 minutes and rode Clint Dempsey’s 27th-minute goal to beat Paraguay 1-0 on Saturday and advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa América Centenario. The night got even better later on, when Costa Rica lent a hand by beating Colombia 3-2, giving the U.S. first place in Group A through the goal-differential tiebreaker. 

Dempsey’s goal, the 51st of his U.S. career, came on a decisive finish after Gyasi Zardes had done good work down the left in a 1-on-2 situation before sending a low cross to the East Texan.

DeAndre Yedlin picked up two yellow cards in the span of a minute early in the second half—the second on a two-footed challenge that defied belief. He will be suspended for the quarterfinal. The game changed after Yedlin’s dismissal, with U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann going into retrenchment mode by sending on Michael Orozco as a right back and removing Dempsey.

The U.S.’s quarterfinal opponent won’t be learned until Sunday.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

Lineup consistency matters

Klinsmann picked the same starting lineup for the third straight game, the first time he has done so during his five-year tenure as the U.S. coach. And the regular choices have been key. These U.S. players showed a renewed familiarity with each other on Saturday, whether it was in the attacking third between Wood and Dempsey or in the central defense with the rampant Geoff Cameron and John Brooks. When the U.S. lost to Guatemala in a March World Cup qualifier, former U.S. players almost universally questioned why there weren’t more core players in Klinsmann’s U.S. group. Now there are more players, and it shows in the way this team is playing together.

Give credit to Klinsmann, who could have benched Zardes for this game but stuck with him, only to see Zardes be part of the decisive goal against Paraguay. Dempsey, too, had been hearing calls for his benching earlier in the tournament, but he has responded with two goals in two games and showed that he continues to be the guy the U.S. relies on to score important goals.

This U.S. central defense was solid again

John Brooks blossoms for the USA, embraces his dual-nationality

The Americans had their second straight clean sheet, which is a ticket to happiness in international soccer tournaments.

Brooks and Cameron have provided the central-defense stability that was missing in last year’s Gold Cup, and the 23-year-old Brooks in particular was fantastic on Saturday, making a highlight-reel play to rush back and save a goal off the foot of Miguel Almirón in the first half.

Then on a rare occasion when Paraguay got through the back line, goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a huge one-on-one save at the end of the first half on Darío Lezcano. There was one exception on the U.S. back line, though, because …

Yedlin made one of the rashest plays in recent U.S. history 

You could certainly argue that Yedlin’s first yellow card wasn’t deserved, but there’s no way you could say that about his second yellow within a minute on a reckless two-footed challenge. It’s a shame: Yedlin had taken a real step forward in his game over the past two months, improving his defense, and it showed with the national team.

The U.S. ended up overcoming Yedlin’s red on Saturday by going into “prevent defense” mode, but it’s going to continue hurting the U.S. in the quarterfinal with Yedlin serving a suspension. Orozco is a downgrade at right back. That said, for a U.S. team that lost its first game in this tournament, having the chance to play in a quarterfinal is nothing to complain about.

Now a new tournament begins.