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U.S. shows mettle in advancing to knockout round of Copa

The U.S. persevered through a test of chemistry and composure, edging Paraguay to win Group A and advance to the knockout round of the Copa América Centenario.

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PHILADELPHIA — Soccer probably is the only sport whose unique vernacular includes derivations of the word "suffer." It’s appropriate. Matches are long, exhausting and often decided by impossibly slim and infuriating margins. Results frequently don’t reflect the run of play. They feature challenges, obstacles and twists that test the limits of physical and emotional fitness. And then there's the officiating.

U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley, who’s been around the sport his entire life and played at the highest levels in Europe and North America, knows the vernacular. And he knows what it is to suffer. Saturday night’s Copa América Centenario first-round finale against Paraguay wasn’t technically a knockout game. But it really was, for all intents and purposes. The participants were vying for the same quarterfinal berth at Lincoln Financial Field—the U.S. would advance with a win or draw while Paraguay needed all three points. These were two desperate teams. Both would suffer.

In the end, the Americans walked away 1-0 winners because they suffered better. Saturday’s game was as much a test of chemistry and composure as it was an exhibition of soccer, and the U.S.—down three points after last week’s loss to Colombia and down a man in Philadelphia thanks to DeAndre Yedlin’s 48th-minute ejection, passed those tests. Bradley and Co. are moving on as Group A winner to Thursday’s quarterfinal in Seattle because they had the mettle to claim a game that demanded everything they had.

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“The mentality was very good. There’s different ways to win games,” Bradley said. “Obviously, the goal in the first half was important and given the way the second half went, going down to 10 men, obviously we know that the mentality was going to have to carry us through. We were able to defend well, suffer together in certain moments and still ultimately keep the game on our terms even though we were defending and down a man.”

Regarding the group stage as a whole, he said, “Everybody wants to get off to a good start. Not everybody does and in those moments, it’s the reaction and the mentality to respond in a big way. We did that.”

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was under considerable pressure following a rough 12 months and then the 2-0 loss to Colombia, has said the goal for his team is a run to the 2018 World Cup semis. To do that, getting out of the group stage isn’t enough. Two knockout-round wins are required. But the U.S. has survived only three World Cup, Confederations Cup or Copa América elimination games over the past 101 years. It has not proven its do-or-die mettle. That’s why this summer’s Copa is so vital to Klinsmann’s 2018 ambition. Yes it’s on home soil and it doesn’t include the European powers. But most South American sides possess greater pedigree, and they certainly know how to suffer. Defeating a CONMEBOL team in a must-win game would be a great start.

Saturday’s game wasn’t a quarterfinal or semi. But it did require a result against a team that had advanced to the final four in each of the past two Copa América tournaments 

“This is it. This is already a knockout game on Saturday. This is it,” Klinsmann said this week. “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.

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“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.”

Understanding the moment—and then mastering it—requires some players, especially those from whom much is expected, to rise to the occasion and have big games when the spotlight is the brightest. From the collective, it requires the mentality and suffering Bradley described. The U.S. got both in Philadelphia.

Clint Dempsey is the program’s leading active goal scorer and the only one with a history of finding the net in big games. Brad Guzan is the heir to a long line of accomplished goalkeepers and had plenty to prove this summer following a miserable season at Aston Villa and Klinsmann’s decision to choose him over World Cup veteran Tim Howard. John Brooks has been lauded as the future of the U.S. defense but was looking to rebound from a rough 2015 Gold Cup.

All three were immense. Dempsey netted the game’s only goal in the 27th minute. Gyasi Zardes, who’s been under a bit of scrutiny too, thanks to some uneven adventures with the ball, came through on Saturday. He won possession in midfield, knocked the ball deftly to Jermaine Jones and then sprinted up the left flank where Bradley found him with a pass played into space.

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"They switched me from right to left because they knew I could beat [Paraguay defender Paulo Da Silva] in a foot race,” Zardes said. “So I just pushed it by him and passed it toward the PK spot because everybody was crashing the front post.”

Dempsey, as usual, read the play correctly and was there for the first-time finish.

“It was a great ball from Gyasi,” he said. “It was perfect. If I didn’t score, it was on me.”

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Brooks produced a performance as fine as any from a U.S. defender. He was dominating—always in position, on the end of every pass and higher than any Paraguayan attacker. His desperate but perfect 11th-minute tackle on midfielder Miguel Almirón, which defused a three-on-one break by the visitors, will live on in U.S. Soccer highlight reels forever.

“Man, he was a beast,” awestruck midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “Let me tell you. When I came off, just seeing him again winning every frickin’ header in the box, he was a beast out there. It’s great to see that. He’s got a bright future.”

Meanwhile, Guzan left no doubt he was the right choice, making the saves he had to make as Paraguay tried to mount a comeback. His lightning-quick, 82nd-minute double save on Jorge Benítez and Almirón ended La Albirroja’s most dangerous foray.

Then, there was the group effort that followed Yedlin’s second yellow card, which came just one minute after his first. The defender’s two-footed lunge right in front of the U.S. bench warranted the marching orders.

“The first reaction is that he’s inexperienced,” Klinsmann said. “He got emotional.”

Michael Orozco came off the bench to fill in at right back, Dempsey exited and the rest of the U.S. more than made up for the composure Yedlin briefly lost. Paraguay, down a goal and up a man, had more of the ball. That should be expected. But it rarely threatened apart from that 82nd-minute flurry, and the U.S. even had a couple chances to double its lead.

“The way they grinded it out, the way they kind of kept the shape, the discipline, the way they worked for each other, was an absolutely outstanding performance. They all deserve a huge compliment,” Klinsmann said.

Watch: Dempsey scores; Brooks, Guzan clutch as U.S. advances in Copa

“This is a huge statement to teams in South America or whoever watched on TV because this team has fantastic spirit and character and what I really love about these guys is they want to get better,” he added.

Klinsmann’s players also were impressed, with each other and themselves.

“It showed a lot of character from the guys to stick it out there and just be ready for everything. Nobody expected a red card but when it came, nobody panicked. The composure was there and we were able to keep marching forward,” Kyle Beckerman said.

“What I’m proud about this team is just the character they showed—the determination, the heart,” Dempsey said. 

“You’re sitting there biting your nails, certain plays you’re wanting the ball to go out of bounds,” the goal scorer said of watching from the bench following Yedlin’s ejection. “Those guys fought hard that were out there and they showed a lot of character. I’m proud to be a part of this team. I think we could possibly do something special here, so hopefully we keep building on that and we get the job done the next game.”

To do that, they’ll have to use Saturday’s win as a blueprint. Overcome adversity and significant frustration with the officiating (Klinsmann slammed his fist on the dugout after a second-half foul on Bobby Wood went uncalled and Bradley was cautioned for dissent), make the big play or two that can decide a game and compete with a collective spirit and cohesion that forces the opponent to do something special. The U.S. was willing to suffer. That’s the recipe for success in a must-win game. It was chippy, physical and desperate—just like next week’s quarterfinal will be.

“This game shows we got, we got, you say it, hmm-mm,” Jones said, looking down toward his waist or below. “Today was a good team effort. Everybody was on the same page and that’s why we won the game.”