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Darlington Nagbe start for United States could pay off vs. Costa Rica

CHICAGO -- With Tuesday's match against Costa Rica being seen as a must-win for the U.S., it's fair to wonder how different national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann's lineup will look compared to the one that started the 2-0 loss to Colombia in Friday's Copa America opener.

U.S. die-hards have been clamoring for the inclusion of national team newbies Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic since before the tournament started, as both made an impact off the bench in the Americans' final two pre-Copa tune-ups. Some fans -- and a few pundits -- have even suggested that Clint Dempsey, who had the home team's three best chances against Los Cafeteros, should be one of the players to make way.

Changes are certainly possible. Klinsmann said weeks ago that given the short turnaround between group stage games, he'd probably need to switch up his starting XI to ensure players stay fresh.

But based on his postgame comments Friday, when Klinsmann insisted he was "very pleased with the performance" against Colombia and "Clint was a warrior out there," it's hard to see the coach benching his most reliable goal-scorer in a game that his team, even if it doesn't win, absolutely cannot lose.

"I'm fine," Dempsey, who was sporting a black eye after playing 90 grueling minutes in 80-plus degree temperatures in the opener, told reporters before the Americans trained Sunday. "I'm good."

Still, the smart money is on Klinsmann making at least one or two tweaks. For a U.S. team that struggled mightily to create chances last week -- partly as a product of trailing the world's No. 3-ranked team for almost the entire match, to be sure -- inserting the slick-passing Nagbe into an attacking role would make a lot of sense.

The Portland Timbers midfielder has impressed in his eight international appearances, all of them as a substitute. He's prepared to play from the beginning against the Ticos if called upon.

"I'm just staying patient because I think the team is playing well," said Nagbe, who scored a late winner against Ecuador in the Americans' penultimate tune-up. "If it's off the bench, I'm fine with that. I'm just waiting for opportunities."

Still, it was interesting to hear his response when asked what the Americans could do better against the Costa Ricans: "As a whole, maybe just keeping the ball a little bit more, having more possession."

Darlington Nagbe v Bolivia
Darlington Nagbe's ability to create in small spaces might be just the thing that helps the U.S. vs. Costa Rica.

Those are precisely the qualities Nagbe offers. Now that he has some experience under his belt -- and his teammates are familiar with how he plays -- seeing what he can do from the start could pay off handsomely for the hosts.

"I think chemistry is huge when it comes to the national team because you're not together all the time," he said. "It's getting there."

But who would come out of the lineup to make room? Nagbe replaced Jermaine Jones against Colombia, and Alejandro Bedoya is the most-like-for-like player, but young forwards Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood are more likely candidates to sit. Could Dempsey be one too? The wondering will continue for another couple of days.

Brooks finally arrives

The John Brooks that American fans have been waiting to emerge as a dominant force since the 6-foot-4 central defender headed home that unforgettable winner against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup is finally here. Nobody doubted the 23-year-old's talent; the German-American center back has been a stalwart in the Bundesliga for his hometown Hertha Berlin for much of the past three seasons. But for much of the past two years, he struggled to replicate those club displays with the U.S. -- until this summer.

What changed? Part of his evolution with the national team is rooted in failure. Brooks struggled in his first go-around as a full-time U.S. starter, when the Americans finished a disappointing fourth at the 2015 Gold Cup. But to hear Brooks tell it, that tournament, which was hosted by the U.S. and played in scorching July temperatures, helped prepare him for this year's Copa America.

"I think I finally found my spot a little here on this team," Brooks said Tuesday. "When you come every time from Europe, it's a little bit different here.

"The Gold Cup was a good experience," he added. "You can't really compare, but it still was a good preparation for this Copa America, so I know what to expect. I learned a lot."

Brooks was perhaps the best American player against Colombia, but he thought his teammates did just fine too.

"Everybody is a little too much of a critic. I think we played OK," he said. "We're still in the [competition]. Costa Rica and Paraguay tied, so everything is open for us."

What does he expect from the Ticos?

"The Colombia game was a tough game with a lot of physical battles," he said. "I think Costa Rica is coming with the same."

Playing in Chicago is special for Brooks. His father's family is from the area; some of them will be at Tuesday's game. Brooks has a tattoo of the Windy City on his right elbow, with one of Berlin on his left.

"It's my first time here since I was 3 years old or something like that," he said. "It's nice to be back here again."


-- The U.S. squad was en route to Chicago on Saturday and therefore wasn't able to watch Costa Rica's scoreless tie with the Paraguayans. The Ticos will be without defender Kendall Waston for the match after the Vancouver Whitecaps center back -- a finalist for MLS defender of the year in 2015 -- picked up a late red card in Saturday's match. Yet Dempsey, who has battled Waston often as a member of the Seattle Sounders, doesn't think that's a huge edge for the hosts. "I'm sure they have other guys who can step in," he said.

-- One advantage the Americans have is rest -- about 18 extra hours of it. "An extra day of rest is always good," Brooks said. "We need it too. But still it's going to be a tough game."

-- Whether or not Nagbe makes his first international start on Tuesday, he is thoroughly enjoying his maiden tournament experience. "You dream of these opportunities and these games," he said. "To be on the bench against Colombia and seeing the atmosphere, the national anthems and the whole thing, it was great."

He also believes the U.S. can advance.

"I think we played our toughest opponent that we're going to face," he said of the group stage. "The next two games are good opportunity for us to take points and control what we can."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.


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