Copa America Centenario
U.S. Men Face Knockout Round Challenge Thursday
June 15, 2016
ON THURSDAY NIGHT the United States men's national team will take on Ecuador in the quarterfinals of Copa America Centenario at CenturyLink Field (9:30pm ET; FS1, UniMas, UDN). The mood around the team is optimistic and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been emphatic that knockout games in major tournaments simply do not happen very often for the U.S.—now was a time to make history.
Playing in CONCACAF, the United States has emerged as a regional power despite a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup. Generally, the U.S. or Mexico finish at the top of Hexagonal World Cup qualifying and in the Gold Cup—the region's two preeminent events.
Opportunities to step outside of CONCACAF in official competitions are rare, which is why Klinsmann was emphatic in Seattle that this was a unique chance for players to make a footprint in the team’s history. He acknowledged that he adopted an aggressive approach with the team's friendlies schedule in recent years (away at Bosnia, Germany, Holland, Chile) so as to prepare for this sort of occasion.
“This is a 50-50 game,” Klinsmann said. “This is knockout. This is do or die. This is what you want to play. This is what you want your team to understand and to figure out a way to get into the semifinal of a huge competition. It's the moment for a player to shine. It's the moment for a player to define his own standing in the world of soccer.”
U.S. Knockout History (Non-Gold Cup)
To add emphasis to Klinsmann’s point, here is a look at the U.S. team’s history in knockout games of major tournaments aside from the Gold Cup in the modern-era (1990 World Cup and beyond). It is not quite flattering. Overall, it has managed just three knockout wins and two came against Mexico – one of which was a shootout.
The bottom line is that the only two knockout wins in a major tournament against a non CONCACAF opponent was the semifinal win over Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup and once over Brazil which was a guest team at the 1998 Gold Cup (the U.S. lost to Brazil twice at the Gold Cup in the early years when guest teams took part).
1994 World Cup—Round of 16: Brazil 1-0 United States
1995 Copa America—Quarterfinal: United States 0-0 Mexico (U.S. won on penalties); Semifinal: Brazil 1-0 United States
1999 Confederations Cup—Semifinal: Mexico 1-0 United States (After Extra Time)
2002 World Cup—Round of 16: United States 2-0 Mexico; Quarterfinal: Germany 1-0 United States
2009 Confederations Cup— Semifinal: United States 2-0 Spain; Final: Brazil 3-2 United States
2010 World Cup—Round of 16: Ghana 2-1 United States (AET)
2014 World Cup—Round of 16: Belgium 2-1 United States (AET)
A MENTAL CHALLENGE
Klinsmann firmly believes that a win in the knockout stages against Ecuador would be a huge boost for the U.S. Evidence points to the fact that the Americans are now doing well in the group stages at major events. The U.S. has advanced to the knockout stages in three of the last four World Cups—a significant achievement even if many fans want, and expect, more.
Knockout games, however, are different and Klinsmann is quick to point out that it is a mental test beyond what group stage games offer. Usually the opponents are of higher quality and both teams carry momentum heading into the game after advancing through the first stage.
At the last two World Cups, the U.S. was eliminated in extratime after talented opponents found an extra gear in the final half-hour of a 120-minute contest.
“The knockout stage is very mental driven,” Klinsmann said. “It's an absolute mental game because when you step on the field and see certain jerseys, it's kind of sniffing at each other saying, 'I'm ready for you.' This is all about the moment. They have to believe. No matter who is on the other side: 'I'm ready for you.'
"This is what you would love to see but it's easy to say...This is what we hopefully improve on.”
GOING FOR IT
Klinsmann wants to see his side play in a proactive manner. In particular against Belgium in 2014, the U.S. adopted a deferential approach to the game and always seemed to be on its heels. In the end, only a remarkable performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard kept the game within reach.
Ecuador is a very good team but not at the level of the Belgian team in 2014. While the Americans defeated Ecuador in a recently friendly, Klinsmann and players have been quick to downplay that result because several key players for Ecuador did not start.
But the Yanks will have advantages. CenturyLink field in Seattle should provide a huge home field advantage and a comfortable atmosphere for the U.S. Klinsmann has stressed that he wants the U.S. to dictate the pace of the game and not be pushed around.
A key test will be the ability of the backline, led by John Brooks and Geoff Cameron, to maintain a high line. Both players have had a strong tournament thus far but Thursday will be their biggest test.
“We love to see that they just become more confident and courageous to take the game to those big teams and not playing just counterbreak football,” Klinsmann said. “Just go and push it higher up. We have that learning curve right now with Geoff Cameron and John [Brooks]. We talked about that in training: Don't drop. Keep the line high. You are fast and you can run after your strikers if they have an opportunity with a chipped ball over the backline.
"This is the learning process that we want to see. We want to have that game played evenly. The whole old story is the underdog story, and I cannot hear that story anymore. I want to see them risk things and go for it. If you're not going for it, sooner or later, they're going to break you down because they have class players.
TEAM CONFIDENCE SOARING
The group stage was a genuine confidence builder for the United States, and for good reason. It marked just the second time in team history that the U.S. team advanced out of its group in a major tournament following an opening game loss.
Following a 2-0 defeat against Colombia, the Americans responded by pounding Costa Rica and rallying to a hard-fought 1-0 win over Paraguay despite being reduced to 10 players for nearly 45 minutes. Klinsmann deployed the same Starting XI for all three games in the group stage and while that will change against Ecuador due to the suspension of DeAndre Yedlin, there is a good chance that the midfield and forward contingent remains the same.
“I think having your backs against the wall, having to get results and lean on each other and the fight we showed in getting out the group especially against Paraguay in the second half, there is a lot of character,” Clint Dempsey said. “There is a lot of heart in this team. When you have your backs against the wall and turn to each other, people stand up. You feel togetherness there.”
Klinsmann echoed Dempsey’s sentiment that this group is a very cohesive unit right now.
“I think everyone can see in the stadium—or hopefully on TV—that this is a group that is very, very hungry,” Klinsmann said. “They have great chemistry. They're there for each other. They're fighting through pain. They're playing a man down for almost a half against Paraguay and they get the job done. Hosting the Copa America is very, very special and the team understands that. I think with every game, the fans understand that more and more as well. This is a very special period of time and we want to go further. We want to go to the final four of this tournament.
“It's a wonderful opportunity for our team to play these type of games and just grow and rise to the occasion,” he added. We have nothing to lose….We can't wait to get on the field on Thursday night.”
Coming into this tournament, there was open speculation throughout the media and fans regarding Klinsmann’s job security. Comments made by Sunil Gulati after the opening loss to Colombia only added to the chatter.
Now that the Americans have advanced to the knockout rounds, and in fact won Group A, that sort of talk has evaporated.
“In this tournament, they realized they can do it and compete with these big, big names and big players and teams,” Klinsmann said. “It is what is very satisfying for a coach that you see them growing and you see them getting stronger. Then you get the feeling you're doing an OK job.”