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Who we thought they were: USA reasserts itself in Costa Rica rout

Frustration boiled after the U.S. men’s national team’s loss to Colombia last week. But the U.S. reasserted itself against weaker competition Tuesday, routing Costa Rica to put itself in good position to advance to the Copa America quarterfinals.

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CHICAGO — Ten years ago, Soldier Field’s primary tenant overcame a 20-point, second-half deficit and won a Monday Night Football game, prompting the losing coach, Dennis Green of the Arizona Cardinals, to unleash one of sports’ great rants.

“The Bears are who we thought they were,” he yelled, more than once. You probably remember the rest.

On Tuesday night at Soldier Field, we learned that the temporary tenants also are who we thought they were. 

“We’ve qualified for [every World Cup] now since ’90, three out of the last four in the second round. But we haven’t broken through to match up well against the world’s elite,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said earlier Tuesday when assessing the state of the national team following Friday’s Copa América Centenario loss to Colombia. The 2–0 setback was the catalyst for considerable consternation among American fans and pundits, many of whom worried the program was regressing.

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

But it is, in fact, right where it’s been for a while—right where it’s expected to be. The U.S. hung in but ultimately didn’t really trouble the No. 3 team in the world. And then on Tuesday at Soldier Field, where it faced elimination with a loss, it demolished Costa Rica, 4–0, to put itself in position to advance to the Copa quarterfinals. Lose in official competition to one of the world’s elite? Check. Beat a visiting CONCACAF rival in official competition? Check. Play better when desperate? Check. 

There’s no point in drawing conclusions about the state of the team after a particular group-stage game, captain Michael Bradley said following Tuesday’s win. Every tournament starts with a trilogy. The U.S. (1–1–0) will meet Paraguay (0–1–1) in Philadelphia on Saturday and will move on with a win. A draw almost certainly would be enough as well. Paraguay was dominant at times but fell to Colombia, 2–1, later Tuesday.

Bradley and his teammates are who they thought they were. They knew Colombia was outstanding, but felt the margins weren’t insurmountable. Defeat wasn’t demoralizing. And they were confident in their composure, their measured perspective and their ability to bounce back. They’d done it before.

WATCH: Dempsey, Jones, Wood, Zusi score for USA vs. Costa Rica

“We have a lot of guys who have been in situations like this before and we spoke before the game about knowing on these kinds of nights, you need mentality, commitment, balls and all these things to carry through,” Bradley said. “We talked so many times about the ability to know how to navigate a group stage, and you know it’s not always going to be perfect. You know there’s going to be ups and downs. You know that in certain moments maybe you’re not going to get exactly what you deserved. But you then have to be able to keep a strong mentality and just understand how to keep yourself going—live to see another day.”

Sunil Gulati calls Jurgen Klinsmann's recent USA results into question

​Jurgen Klinsmann was certain he knew his team. The Americans were unable to create or threaten Colombia on Friday, but the manager felt that was influenced heavily by Los Cafeteros’ early goal and their comfort on the counterattack. It wasn’t an indictment of the U.S. So he started the same 11 players against Costa Rica in the very same formation.

“We’ve been on the road since three weeks,” Klinsmann said after Tuesday’s win. “We try to build the chemistry. We try to build a real positive spirit and we try to build confidence for the players to play with the best teams coming from South America.

“I see a team progressing—a team that badly wants to prove itself with these caliber teams in the Copa América. There’s great energy there, but we’re still in this learning process. When you analyze Colombia again, I think this was a very encouraging performance by us against Colombia, but obviously the result is 2–0 and especially in the U.S., that’s all that matters to a lot of people. For the team it’s important that they know where they stand.”

GALLERY: Fans of Copa America Centenario

Klinsmann targeted the Copa semifinals before the tournament kicked off. That’s reasonable for a host team that’s competitive but not often contending for a title. And thanks to Tuesday’s win, the final four remains possible. The Colombia loss wasn’t the end of the story. The U.S. was beaten by Germany at the 2014 World Cup and still advanced. It lost to Poland in 2002 and wound up in the quarters, and it made the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup after losing to Italy and Brazil in the group stage. The Americans may not be among soccer’s elite. But they’re often good enough to get through.

“We showed it today that we can beat people and there’s no point to be scared about somebody,” said Jermaine Jones, who scored the Americans’ second goal and was outstanding as the primary marauder in midfield. “We knew that Colombia is a really good team and you can lose against them. It’s a normal game. With all respect, Costa Rica and Paraguay, we know that with the quality we have we can beat both … We knew [Colombia was the favorite]. Not only we knew that, you guys knew that too. You were all saying, Colombia will be No. 1 and it will be tough for us to come out. So we’ve been focused on Costa Rica and Paraguay.”

Watch: Clint Dempsey scores 50th career goal for USMNT

The U.S. hasn't progressed to the point where it has the sort of creativity, touch and dynamism to unlock a high-level opponent that chooses to stay compact and defend. But against a team like Costa Rica and in a game that opens up like Tuesday’s, this is a squad that possesses sufficient skill and commitment to do the job. Jones was imperious, Bradley was composed and Clint Dempsey was able to find those pockets just in front of the back four from which he can put defenders into disarray. Wood demonstrated his finishing bona fides with a slick 42nd-minute goal, profiting from Klinsmann’s switch to a 4–4–2 late in the first half.

The U.S. won’t come in first place and won’t wind up in last. There’s everything to play for in Philadelphia. That’s totally normal, as Klinsmann would say. For the Americans, it always comes down to the wire.

“Certain things didn’t flow perfectly but they managed to get the goals and it kind of balances things out a little bit. I think we we’re right there in the driver’s seat to get through the most difficult group in the Copa América,” Klinsmann said.

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“You talk Colombia, you talk No. 3 right now. If you watched yesterday Argentina-Chile, this is another level,” he added. “We watched it in the coaches’ room and we were exhausted at halftime because they went 200 miles an hour, technically it was unbelievable perfection. It was just sprinting for 90 minutes all over and that’s the soccer that we want to see, because it means you understand where these teams are coming from. So this is a huge, huge showcase for the game here in the United States and for our players to see that, to watch that on TV and then you watch who they bring off the bench, Argentina, holy moly! But this is what we want. This is why it’s such a gift to host the Copa América.”

The U.S. is a long way from Argentina. But it didn’t play Argentina in Chicago, it played a Costa Rica team that hasn’t won a competitive game between the two on American soil in more than two decades. And the U.S. won the game it was supposed to win, and did so handily.

“Just like in any competition, in the first round if you start off with a loss your backs are against the wall, so you need to perform,” said Dempsey, who opened the scoring on a penalty kick that was his 50th goal in a U.S. jersey. “At the same time, look at the last two World Cups … We got out of difficult groups and we showed what our level could be. Tonight we put in a professional performance and now look to do that in the next game.”