Jurgen Klinsmann targeted the Copa América Centenario semifinals. He said his team was ready for that kind of run. And the U.S. got there thanks to Thursday’s gripping quarterfinal win over Ecuador.
The manager also issued this warning prior to the tournament opener: “The team that starts this Copa América probably won't be the team that finishes it.”
Credit to Klinsmann for his foresight. He put the Americans in position to advance by stressing chemistry and consistency, becoming the first U.S. coach in 85 years to start the same 11 in three straight games. Klinsmann picked the right center back pairing. He pulled Michael Bradley deeper into midfield, gave Jermaine Jones license to maraud and moved Bobby Wood up front halfway through the second game. All of it made a difference.
Now, as the U.S. prepares for that semifinal against either Argentina or Venezuela on Tuesday evening in Houston, Klinsmann must confront the upheaval he anticipated. Tournaments don’t just test consistency. They demand depth. Grueling schedules and travel, not to mention the high stakes, fray muscles and nerves. Injuries and suspensions result, and the teams most equipped to handle them tend to be the ones that survive.
Look no further then the current world champions. Germany’s clinching goal two summers ago in Rio de Janeiro was scored by a substitute and set up by the guy who came in for the injured teammate who was replacing the usual starter. To be the best, you’ve got to be able to replace your best.
That’s the challenge facing Klinsmann in Houston. Jones, Wood and Alejandro Bedoya are suspended. Each has started all four Copa games, and each has been integral to the Americans’ advancement. None has an obvious, like-for-like replacement. With a potential showdown against Lionel Messi and Argentina looming, this isn’t the ideal time to mess with what’s working. But Klinsmann has no choice.
Jones was ejected following a second-half scrum on Thursday after putting his hand to the face of Ecuador’s Michael Arroyo. It wasn’t clear that Jones made contact and Klinsmann called the red card “an absolute joke.” But the midfielder still would have missed the semifinal if he’d been shown only a yellow card, which would have been his second of the competition. A frustrated Wood was cautioned for the second time in the Copa just seconds later—Jones still hadn’t left the pitch—for an unnecessary foul along the touchline. Finally, a fatigued Bedoya saw his second yellow of the competition for pulling down Juan Carlos Paredes.
"It's an emotional game. It's a big game. That stuff happens,” Wood told reporters afterward.
Added Bedoya: "It's tough. It sucks. We knew going into game some of us were on yellow cards. Who cares [if we] miss the semis? We won the game.”
At the time and in the heat of the moment, none of them could think ahead to the possibility of missing a semifinal that wasn’t guaranteed. But it matters now. U.S. Soccer on Friday filed a protest with tournament organizers regarding the cards issues to Jones and Wood, but the judgement of referees isn’t often reversed.
“Unfortunately we lost Jermaine for the incident,” Klinsmann said Thursday. “[And] we’re obviously going to be missing Ale Bedoya and Bobby in the semifinals, so it’s not easy. But I think there’s a team that has so much desire to grind it out.”
Assuming the opponent is Argentina, the U.S. certainly has a grind in store. In Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín, La Albiceleste boast three of soccer’s top snipers. Inter Milan’s Éver Banega pulls the strings and coach Gerardo Martino can choose from among Nicolás Gaitán, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Érik Lamela to provide attacking punch from midfield. And then there’s the elusive but unlucky Ángel Di María, who’s nursing a groin injury.
If Argentina gets by Venezuela and the Paris Saint-Germain star is ready for the semi, the Americans’ job will get even tougher. Meanwhile, Argentina has been stout defensively. It yielded one goal in the Copa’s group stage and just two in six matches this year.
U.S. confidence is high, however, following three straight wins.
“We take it the way it kind of comes along,” Klinsmann said Thursday. “We don’t need to talk Argentina any bigger than they are. We had two years ago Mr. Ronaldo coming to Manaus. That was a big game, too. We had them right down there, 2-1, until the 96th minute. So we’ll give everything we have with all the respect for the opponents … We've come so far now and now we get even hungrier for the next step, even if it’s, we totally understand, a big team.”
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To manage the semi, Klinsmann will have to start by deciding how he wants to arrange his midfield. The U.S. has done well in the 4-4-2 because Bradley and Jones have more defined roles and because Wood is so dangerous attacking from a more central spot. His runs behind the Ecuadorian back four were instrumental as the U.S. took a two-goal lead on Thursday.
But a 4-3-3 that becomes a 4-5-1 defensively might be a more effective approach against an Argentine team featuring so many world-class players in the middle. Clogging the space through which the likes of Messi and Agüero want to operate would be the best way to slow them down. Argentina then might be forced wide, giving John Brooks and Geoff Cameron a chance to cut off crosses. A 4-3-3 might push Klinsmann to deploy Kyle Beckerman in front of the back four, which would alter Bradley’s role. But the captain’s responsibilities likely will change anyway absent Jones and Bedoya.
The good news for the U.S. is that right back DeAndre Yedlin, who was suspended Thursday, will be eligible to play in Houston. That leaves Klinsmann with the option of reverting to the defense that started the group stage or leaving Matt Besler at left back—the Sporting Kansas City captain held his own against Ecuador—and bumping up Fabian Johnson. The Americans will need someone who can play both sides of the ball and pose some sort of threat from midfield. The hosts will have no chance unless they can keep Argentina honest. Darlington Nagbe or Graham Zusi could fill that sort of role as well, either alongside/above Bradley in midfield or from one of the wings.
Klinsmann then will have to address the attack. Clint Dempsey remains irreplaceable. He’s one of three players to have scored three goals at this Copa América. He also leads the tournament with three assists. If he plays as the lone center forward in a 4-3-3, he may have less of an impact but the U.S. midfield will be sturdier. If Zardes pushes up top in attempt to mimic Wood’s forays, Dempsey may thrive when the U.S. has the ball.
But when it doesn’t, which could be often if Argentina is the opposition, the Texan would forced to retreat to find it or help defend.
Klinsmann hinted Thursday that Zardes may be deployed higher. That would give the manager the option of a Beckerman-Bradley-Zusi-Johnson (or Nagbe) midfield with Dempsey as a link and Zardes as an outlet for longer passes.
“When you have now an outlet, unfortunately now not in the next game with Bobby Wood, with Bobby we have now a player that’s just a warrior. He’s all over the field and he gives everything for the team,” the manager said. “We go back two years ago with Jozy’s injury in the first game [of the World Cup] that left a hole. We all know that. But now we have a Bobby Wood, we have a Gyasi, that we can always put forward as well. So we have now some options we didn’t have two years ago.”
Indeed, there are options, as well as two extra days to work it all out. While the U.S. enjoys four full days off between its quarterfinal and semi, the Argentina-Venezuela winner will get only two. It isn’t fair, but the Americans will take it. They’ll need time to prepare, practice and work on building the same sort of chemistry that carried them through the group stage.
“I always talk about unity. From day one, we’ve always been together,” Zardes said. “Even the guys that are on the bench that are not playing, they play a vital and key role on the team that’s on the field, and I think the guys that are going go replace those [suspended] guys are going to do an amazing job … We’re going to be prepared for our next opponent and our next game.”
Said Wood: “It sucks that some players are out, but that why it’s a team sport. And I think the guys that are coming in are for sure going to make a difference as well.”