The U.S. Men’s National Team controls its own destiny on Saturday night, but a berth in the knockout rounds will require a big time performance against a South American foe.
Following Tuesday night’s win over Costa Rica, the USMNT can book a spot in the Copa America knockout stages on Saturday with a win or tie against Paraguay. A loss, however, would send Los Guaraníes through to the knockout stages while prematurely ending the USMNT’s hopes of making a run.
Through two Copa America games, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has stuck with the familiar. The USMNT boss has selected the same lineup in back-to-back matches, but could be tempted to make changes for the team’s third game in eight days.
With a berth in the knockout rounds on the line, the U.S. cannot afford any mistakes. Yet another do-or-die situation awaits in what will be a defining moment of the USMNT’s 2016 campaign.
Here’s a look at a lineup that the USMNT could utilize on Saturday night:
There’s an old saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Jurgen Klinsmann should, and probably will, heed that advice on Saturday night.
After cruising past Costa Rica, Klinsmann will likely stick with something that very much resembles Tuesday’s lineup for Saturday’s match against Paraguay. The current XI has been earmarked as the USMNT’s best, and enters on a major high after destroying a CONCACAF rival.
The question becomes how to line them up. On Tuesday night, Klinsmann noticed early that his side was having issues in his chosen 4-3-3 formation. The decision was made to swap to a 4-4-2, tucking Bobby Wood inside with Clint Dempsey while pushing Alejandro Bedoya and Gyasi Zardes out wide.
The USMNT has similar flexibility against Paraguay, but may opt for the two-striker set for tactical reasons. Leading the Paraguay backline is 36-year-old veteran Paulo Da Silva, a player that has developed a keen sense for the game throughout his career. However, as expected for a player so near the end of his playing career, Da Silva is far from fleet of foot, and could be ripe for exposing should the USMNT target him. The idea would be to get any of the USMNT’s attackers one-on-one with the aging defender to exploit superior athleticism while breaking down the heart of the Paraguay defense.
One way of doing that is getting Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin forward, something that was accomplished much more efficiently in the 4-4-2. The formation also tucks Bobby Wood inside, allowing him to cause havoc in the box as Clint Dempsey drops deep to kickstart the attack. Against a Paraguay team likely to be aggressive on the counter, Johnson and Yedlin will have to pick their spots wisely, but should be given the green light to attack as the U.S. needs to snag at least one point.
The biggest point of concern comes with fatigue. Starting the same lineup for the third time in a little over a week is a risk, but it is one that Klinsmann insists his side is up for. Luckily for the USMNT, the team’s two oldest players, Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, are also likely the team’s most competitive. Keeping Dempsey and Jones off the field will be nearly impossible for Klinsmann given their recent performance and pure competitive drive.
If Klinsmann does opt to make some swaps, the most likely candidate to join the lineup are, once again, Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic. Nagbe, in particular, provides Klinsmann with options. If the U.S. is to go with a 4-3-3, Nagbe can replace any of Wood, Jones, Alejandro Bedoya or Gyasi Zardes as a middle or wide option. If it’s a 4-4-2, Nagbe can once again be played anywhere along the middle four. The Portland Timbers midfielder offers versatility and a technical skill arguably unmatched by any other USMNT option, but the idea of bringing him in as a spark in the second half will likely be an enticing one for Klinsmann.
Pulisic could be given a chance to shine in front of his home fans. From Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pulisic’s introduction would be raucous one should he join the fray in Philadelphia. However, despite his maturity, giving a 17-year-old his first international start in a do-or-die game would be a bold move, even for Klinsmann.
Depending on how things move, Klinsmann will have choices as the game enters its final moments. Jones and Dempsey are likely pegged for less than 90 minutes, and Klinsmann has a variety of ways to replace them depending on the situation. Graham Zusi is very in form and can slot in on the wing or the midfield, while Kyle Beckerman provides a lock-down option should the U.S. be tied or nursing a narrow lead.
All things considered, it’s do or die time for the USMNT, and it’s very likely the U.S. will ride with what got them to this point. Throughout the tournament, Klinsmann has insisted that this 11 is his best 11, and it is now up to them to fully prove it by pushing through to the knockout stages.