A 2-0 defeat triggers gloom and doom regarding the U.S. national team. A convincing 4-0 victory brings unbridled euphoria.
American fans have seen it all before, and all too recently.
The Copa America Centenario results to date are mirror images of what occurred in March, when the U.S. labored during a loss in Guatemala City that revived serious concerns about the national team’s direction under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. In the aftermath of that defeat, he and his players expressed confidence the return game at home against the same foe would be different, and it certainly was.
More than two months later, as Centenario host, the USA lost to a top-flight South American team and though it conceded two goals to Colombia on a corner kick and penalty kick, many of its best players looked outclassed for much of the match. To face Costa Rica, a much weaker and very familiar opponent, Klinsmann stuck to the same starting 11 and the Americans took command by scoring three first-half goals to win going away.
Different scenarios produced similar results, and the central question is not how the USA could raise its game so dramatically when backed into a “must-win” corner. For nearly three decades -- since the Olympic team reversed a 2-0 loss to Canada by winning the return leg, 3-0, on its way to the 1988 Summer Games -- the Americans have displayed this trait, though the U-23s have also stumbled short of qualifying for the last two Olympics.
What is a concern regarding the Klinsmann regime -- and was also present under predecessors Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena -- is a disquieting failure to establish a baseline of performance and quality that can help carry the team through tough intervals. The Americans often struggle to ride out periods of pressure, and dating back to the days of Tony Meola, have often relied on their goalkeepers -- Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard -- to bail them out.
Every team needs good goalkeeping to succeed, but smart teams can also defuse sticky situations by methods other than launching a long ball to buy a few seconds of relief. Playing road games in Concacaf nations often entail such realities as a dodgy surface, intense crowds, and perhaps a few questionable officiating decisions. And even as skillful a team as Mexico battles for results in places like Honduras and Costa Rica and Panama. They succeed by fighting for every loose ball when they defend and by using every possession wisely when they attack. Their superior talent is nullified if they can't utilize their poise and experience. These are the qualities essential for what the USA will encounter Saturday.
Colombia is a superior team and once it took an early lead the Americans faced a daunting task trying to catch up. But in addition to scoring, they needed to take away Colombia’s momentum by keeping the ball, establishing tempo and getting into their own rhythm. Colombia didn’t need to swarm the Americans all over the field; instead, they applied pressure selectively, and took advantage of an alarming run of giveaways as U.S. players dribbled into double-teams or simply passed the ball into a lane occupied by an opponent.
Getting the first goal, as the Americans did against Costa Rica when Clint Dempsey converted a penalty kick in the eighth minute, is an ideal scenario. Their confidence buoyed by that early goal, the Americans dictated play and scored two more goals before halftime. The Costa Ricans tried to raise their play but were second-best to a sharp, motivated U.S. team, which survived a few shaky moments in the back to score excellent goals through Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood. Between those goals it changed to a 4-4-2 formation and rode out the second half comfortably,
The Paraguay game presents Klinsmann and his players one of soccer’s great conundrums. Needing only a tie, do the Americans come out carefully and sort out what Paraguay intends to do? Or do they take the game to their opponents, getting them to chase and react as the visitors seek the goal they must have to win?
Klinsmann preaches boldness to his players, so it’s not likely the USA will start too conservatively. The value of an early goal in this situation is greatly magnified, especially if it’s scored by the Americans. Paraguay would then need at least two goals to win and by taking greater risks would be more susceptible to counters. The USA takes the field knowing if they don’t concede a goal they are in the quarterfinals. Its opponent has scored just one goal in the first two Centenario games yet one on Saturday could be enough.
Paraguay’s roster is full of players battle-tested in Conmebol qualifiers, Copa America matches and Libertadores Cup encounters. Diego Lozano has scored four of its seven qualifying goals and Victor Ayala stunned the Colombians by launching a rocket from nearly 30 yards that flew inside the far post. They are not the measure of Colombia in their current form yet they are more potent than Costa Rica, and will be ready to take advantage of defensive miscues and set-play opportunities to prevail in a game that, most assuredly, for them is a must-win.
For the Americans, the musts are these: match the intensity of their opponents, and be clever and focused enough not to be fooled or exploited.