When the final whistle blew on what turned out to be a 1-0 win over Paraguay, the U.S. Men’s National Team bench charged onto the field. It was a display of joy and relief all in one; an expression of a hurdle cleared en route to the ultimate goal.
In truth, Saturday never felt like just a group stage game. With what was on the line, the USMNT knew Saturday’s clash against Paraguay was more than just an opening round finale. It was do-or-die, and anything less than a win would open the door for Copa America elimination.
That ultimate goal remains in the distance, even with a statement win. But on Saturday, down a man against a relentless Paraguay team, the USMNT rushed the field with a feeling of mission accomplished.
“I’m just thrilled for the team because they really deserved the win tonight,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We held on basically with a man down for pretty much the whole second half, and we even created chances to score a second one. This is a huge statement to teams in South America or whoever watches it on TV because this team has a fantastic spirit, they have character.
“What I really love from these guys is that they want to get better. They want to get better. They improve, they listen. You run them through certain scenarios. You run them through certain systems, shapes. You kind of make them understand that their learning curve is just starting. Those that are older, they stay hungry and are committed, like a Jermaine Jones or a Clint. That’s just fantastic to see. As a coach, you want to see your players enjoy that process, and I think right now they’re really enjoying it.”
Despite the end result, Saturday’s effort was not entirely a performance to enjoy. It was gritty, it was difficult, and, at times, it was ugly.
Down a man and protecting a one goal lead, the USMNT did what it needed to do. When it came time to kill the game, the U.S. took every opportunity to do so. Against a threatening Paraguay side, the U.S. was forced to grind their way just one game after putting forth one of their most free-flowing performances.
The slow grind towards the knockout stages began, in earnest, early in the second half. Just 59 seconds after putting his name in the referee’s book, DeAndre Yedlin got himself sent off, sputtering any momentum the USMNT had generated with Clint Dempsey’s first half opener.
“The first reaction is inexperience. He got emotional,” Klinsmann said of Yedlin’s dismissal. “He got a card. Emotionally, he makes the first tackle because he has to make the recovery run. I was not sure about the first one. I thought the first one he played the ball, but seeing it real quick, it was a foul. You can give that yellow. Then he just lost his head for a second. This is why you are young. You have to give him that benefit of the doubt. He will learn out of that mistake.”
“The character they show, the determination, the heart. They battled through that 35 minutes a man down,” added Dempsey, who was sacrificed for Michael Orozco following Yedlin’s dismissal. “Now it’s about once you advance out of the group what are you gonna do so hopefully we keep pushing.”
The USMNT remains a ways from their end goal. Before the tournament, Klinsmann targeted the competition’s semifinals and, with it, a monumental knockout stage win. Brazil, Ecuador or Peru will be awaiting them in Seattle, presenting an opportunity to make a statement.
For Klinsmann, there is work to be done, but Saturday’s match was what the USMNT head coach sees as another positive step towards claiming a place in the region’s elite.
“What we’d love to see is that they become more confident and courageous to take the game to big teams,” Klinsmann said. “We’re not playing just counter football, that we go and really push it up… This is the process that we want to kind of have the game play evenly. The whole old story is the underdog story, and I can’t hear that story anymore.
“I want to see them risk things. Let’s go for it. If you’re not going for it, sooner or later, they’ll break you down because they have the class players that give you one or two. It’s taking the game. That’s the learning curve. The knockout stage is very mental driven. It’s absolutely a mental game. When you step on the field and see certain jersey, it’s sniffing at each other and saying I’m ready for you. It’s the moment and this is what they need to believe in. Whoever is on the other side, I’m ready for you. This is what you would love to see. It’s easy to say, but it’s a mental learning curve that the coming game, we hopefully, improve now on.”