June 10, 2016
Win and the Americans are in; tie and they likely fly to quarters, lose and they're going home
By Michael Lewis
PHILADELPHIA -- The United States' Copa America Centenario fate is as cut and dried as it can get as the Americans prepare for their Group A finale against Paraguay Saturday night.
Win and they move on to play another day.
Tie and there is a good chance they will be battling the Group B winner in next week's quarterfinals at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Lose and they're going home as the very first host side to fail to reach the knockout rounds since the tournament format changed in 1987.
Not surprisingly, USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann looks at Saturday 7 p.m. encounter at Lincoln Financial Field as much more than a group match.
"This is it. This is already a knockout game on Saturday," he said.
"Everybody is really hungry and eager to make things happen on Saturday night against a very strong Paraguay team."
Added veteran forward Clint Dempsey: "It's important for us to get the right result to continue staying alive in this tournament. It's like a World Cup qualifying game."
Actually, more like the final WCQ match at one round that will determine who survives and who goes home.
The Americans (1-1-0, 3 points) have displayed resilience when their backs are against. The latest example came in this competition when they went down to a 2-0 loss to third-ranked and group-leader Colombia (2-0-0, 6) in their tournament opener. They bounced back with a resounding 4-0 triumph over Costa Rica (0-1-1, 1) that turned the group upside down. Paraguay (1) is 0-1-1.
The first tie-breaker is goal differential and due to that, the USA is in the drivers' seat. They have a plus two, Paraguay is minus one, Costa Rica minus two.
But even though they need but one point to advance, don't expect the Americans sit back and play for a draw.
"We don't have the character to sit back and let them come and just hope for a counter break," Klinsmann said during a press conference at the stadium Friday afternoon. "This is not us. We have to be really involved in the game. We have to set the tone. We have to keep a very high level of aggressiveness and a determination from the first second of this game."
And that means not allowing the first goal and winding up chasing the game.
Including Chile's 2-1 controversial late win over Bolivia on Friday night, teams that have found the back of the net first in this competition have a 12-0-1 record (there have been two scoreless draws).
"There is obviously some truth behind that," Klinsmann said. "Teams of that caliber, when they score first, they know exactly how to defend. They know how to throw you off with a counter break. If you get into that situation, it's very difficult, which we experienced against Colombia. Break them down when they're two-nil up. It's a huge mountain in front of you."
So getting off to a good start -- on the field and on the scoreboard -- is a must for success.
"You want to make sure that you start on the right foot," Klinsmann said. "You want to make sure you're not giving anything away in the first half hour of the game. You keep on grinding this game. You have to be very carefully not to go a goal down."
To win close games like against difficult opposition with so much on the line, the USA must find ways to close out matches as well.
Right back DeAndre Yedlin said that the Americans will just have to manage the game, depending on the situation. The most intense moments probably will occur in the final half hour, with so much on the line for both sides.
"You've got to pick and choose your times, when to attack and when to sit back," he said. "It comes with the situation in the game. If you're down 2-0 with 20 minutes left, you have to attack. If you're up or you're tied, maybe you sit back a little bit more and try to close out the game."
The Americans would love to be in that situation come Saturday night.