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Early goal tilts balance in USA's needed Copa win vs. Costa Rica

The U.S. said its confidence and resolve were not shaken, and it proved as much in a 4-0 Copa America win over Costa Rica.

CHICAGO — For two days, they insisted that their confidence wasn’t shaken by last Friday’s loss to Colombia. Their resolve wasn’t damaged. Faith in their potential and tactical approach remained strong. Turns out that wasn’t lip service. The U.S. national team had bounced back before from tough losses and did so again Tuesday night in the Windy City, where the hosts found their Copa América Centenario groove with a 4-0 romp over Costa Rica.

The Americans would have been eliminated from the tournament with a defeat. Instead, they’re 1-1-0 and will head to Philadelphia for Saturday’s Group A finale against Paraguay with chance to secure a spot in the quarterfinals.

Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Graham Zusi scored for the opportunistic U.S., the midfield was dominant and the back four wasn’t troubled after a shaky start. It was a performance and result that should ease a considerable amount of the tension that followed the 2-0 setback to Colombia.

Here are three thoughts from Solider Field, where 39,642 fans watched the U.S. win a game it had to have:

Early goals change games

Last Friday, Colombia’s eighth-minute goal left the U.S. in big trouble early. Already content to sit back and unleash its devastating counterattack, Colombia snatched a lead that forced the U.S. to play to the visitors’ strengths. A second goal and an easy victory followed.

It was the Americans that seized the early advantage on Tuesday. The opening minutes did not look good for the U.S., which was under pressure and fortunate not to go down when an awful clearance by DeAndre Yedlin led to a half-volley from Costa Rica midfielder Joel Campbell that flashed just wide of the post. It took several minutes for the U.S. to simply cross midfield.

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Then, in the seventh, the Americans broke through. Yedlin, the right back, made amends quickly, sending a cross toward the left post that ended with a whistle as Costa Rica’s Cristian Gamboa shoved Wood in the back. Dempsey buried the ensuing penalty kick, giving the U.S. a lead it wouldn’t relinquish and confirming his membership in the program’s 50-goal club. He joined the retired Landon Donovan as the only players to hit the half-century mark.

The entire tone of the game changed. The U.S. played with vigor and confidence, challenging opponents on the dribble and making committed runs off the ball. Jones was especially effective, covering vast amounts of territory and slicing through the Costa Rican midfield at will. There was a spring in the U.S. step that hasn’t been seen for a while, and two more goals quickly followed.

The opponent matters

Much of the consternation that followed Friday’s loss focused on the U.S., and not enough on the quality of the opposition. Colombia is the third-ranked team in the world, and while FIFA’s rating system isn’t exact science, it does provide an idea of where a given them falls in the pecking order.

“It’s a very different situation when you play against a team like Colombia, as skillful and as good as they are. We don’t win many matchups,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said earlier Tuesday.

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Costa Rica also was a World Cup quarterfinalist, but it isn’t Colombia. The star of that Ticos team, goalkeeper Keylor Navas, is missing the Copa América. It’s a squad the U.S. knows well and which hasn’t defeated the Americans in a competitive game on U.S. soil since 1985. Klinsmann was so confident that Friday’s result was more about the opponent than his own team that he started the same 11 players in the same formation.

This is a manger who thrives on change, yet he stuck with what didn’t work last week in a game he had to win.

It damaged the early narrative that the U.S. met its toughest opponent first, but each of the three group-stage games is worth an identical three points, and now it has momentum heading toward the first-round finale.

All the Colombia loss demonstrated was that the U.S. isn’t as good as Colombia. But it’s certainly good enough to finish second in Group A and advance.

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Klinsmann gets the tactics right

Scoring that early goal allowed the U.S. to give Costa Rica a taste of the medicine it was forced to swallow last Friday. The Americans played with low pressure, forcing the Ticos to pass through them on the way to goalkeeper Brad Guzan. That’s not Costa Rica’s strength. It’s a counterattacking team. Klinsmann and the U.S. managed their lead brilliantly.

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Then they turned the screws. Costa Rica plays with five defenders, two of whom are wing backs who stick closer to the touchlines. That leaves only three in the midfield and plenty of space, which the U.S. exploited ruthlessly. Jones was on the ball constantly, barreling forward through the left channel. Dempsey was involved plenty as well, and he assisted Jones’ gorgeous 37th-minute goal with a strong dribbling run and a layoff (it may have been a fortuitous touch, but it landed in an ideal spot).

Wood and Gyasi Zardes still didn’t look entirely comfortable on the wings, but the Americans’ midfield dominance left them with time on the ball and opportunities to create.

Klinsmann fixed that last problem late in the first half, switching the team smartly into a 4-4-2 that allowed Wood to push up front with Dempsey. In the 42nd, Wood turned on a pass from Dempsey (who’s better in a withdrawn role) froze Costa Rica defender Oscar Duarte and buried a shot inside the left post.

Costa Rica completed almost 100 passes more than the U.S. managed in the first half. Yet the U.S. scored as many goals against Costa Rica as it had in the previous five games between the teams. The hosts’ patience in their own half and recognition of the space available up the heart of the Costa Rican midfield was the difference.

The Americans came ready to play and produced a complete game both mentally and physically.