The United States avoided the humiliation of being the first team eliminated from the Copa America Centenario on home soil with a convincing win over Costa Rica on Tuesday. But the job is not yet done if Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is to reach the quarterfinals of the 100-year celebration of South America’s championship.
Bottom of the group after an opening loss to Colombia, the U.S. men’s national team go into the final round of fixtures in Group A sitting second behind Los Cafeteros. Barring a victory by a frankly ridiculous margin for Costa Rica over Colombia in the group’s other final fixture, a draw against Paraguay in Philadelphia on Saturday will be enough for the U.S. to progress. A defeat, though, and it will be Paraguay that move on, with the U.S. forced to continue only as a spectator at its own party. The pressure remains well and truly on the U.S., and especially Klinsmann.
The German coach, closing in on his five-year anniversary in charge, has so far developed a knack of producing a big result just when it was needed. Notably, after coming under pressure following a loss in Honduras in the opening fixture of the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, his side responded with a memorable win over Costa Rica in the snow of Colorado. And just three months ago, following another dispiriting World Cup qualifying loss, this time in Guatemala, Klinsmann’s men rebounded four days later with a thumping 4-0 victory over the same opponent.
It was a similar story in a 4-0 win over Costa Rica in Chicago on Tuesday. After a rocky start, Jermaine Jones inspired the team to what was in the end a comfortable victory. Yet this time around, Klinsmann knows that he has to follow it up with another positive result, or the consequences will be severe.
Not only would the U.S. be out of the competition, some way before the semifinal stage that had been targeted, but Klinsmann’s job would also be under more pressure than ever before. In the buildup to the Costa Rica match, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Galati made it clear that the team needed to start getting wins in competitive matches, following disappointing results in last summer’s Gold Cup and then in a Confederations Cup playoff with Mexico.
Yet, despite that burden, and the knowledge that just a point will be enough at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Klinsmann has stressed that his team can’t afford to defend and play for a draw.
“It is a very clear situation,” Klinsmann said at his pre-match press conference. “A point would take us into the quarters. But we don’t have the character to sit back and let them come and hope to counter. We have to be really involved in the game, set the tone, and keep a very high level of aggressiveness and determination going into this game.”
For Paraguay, the scenario is even more simple: only a win will do. That is what it will take for the South American side to continue its impressive record in the Copa America in recent years. Not since 2001 has Paraguay exited the competition at the group stage, and in the last two editions it has reached the final and semifinals.
Coached by Argentine Ramón Díaz since the end of 2014, Paraguay showed it will be no pushover in its second match against Colombia. Despite going 2-0 down in the first 30 minutes to one of the favorites for the title, Paraguay fought back in the second half, pulling a goal back through a stunning free-kick from Victor Ayala. Even after going down to 10 men with Óscar Romero’s sending off, Paraguay still pushed, ultimately in vain, for an equalizer. But Diaz knows there is now no room for second chances.
"Both the players and the coaching staff need to show what we're made of, and I want the Paraguayans to be calm just like we are for [Saturday]'s game,” he said. “For us this is a final, because it will be an achievement to knock out the hosts that will have the support of their fans. We have to be very intelligent for this kind of games. We're going to have to overcome the pressures on the field, as well as those external.”
Prediction: A 4-0 victory flattered the U.S. somewhat against Costa Rica, and there still remain questions for Klinsmann to answer. The personnel he has opted for in the first two matches is not ideally suited either for the 4-3-3 with which the U.S. began the Copa America or the 4-4-2 switched to late in the first half on Tuesday. There could be opportunities for Paraguay to exploit on the break. But the loss of Romero, one of Paraguay’s best attacking players, to suspension is a real blow, and the U.S. should have enough to get the result it needs.
Predicted score: USA 1-1 Paraguay
Kickoff Time: 7 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1, Univision, Univision Deportes