Jurgen Klinsmann shows knack of delivering U.S. wins under pressure
CHICAGO -- Throughout much of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as manager of the U.S. national team, the Americans have shown an uncanny knack for getting results when their collective back -- and, in particular, Klinsmann's back -- has been against the wall.
Sure, there have been exceptions. Last year's loss to Jamaica in the semifinals of the Gold Cup was one instance when the U.S. fell short. The CONCACAF Cup final against Mexico was another.
But think back to the moments when Klinsmann was at his most vulnerable, such as the home World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in 2013. That match was immediately preceded by the now-famous Sporting News article that called his managerial acumen, and handling of players, into question.
The U.S. prevailed 1-0 in the snow, and followed that up with a gritty 0-0 draw against Mexico at the Azteca. The pressure eased, and U.S. was then on its way and largely cruised through the rest of that qualifying campaign. Then there was the home qualifier against Guatemala last March, one that immediately followed a dreadful 2-0 defeat in Guatemala City. The U.S. roared back to win 4-0, and again any stress was released.
So when the U.S. squared off against Costa Rica in its second Copa America Centenario match, it found itself in a somewhat familiar position. It had lost, not unexpectedly, its opener against Colombia. The U.S. needed a response against the Ticos in order to keep its hopes of progressing to the tournament's knockout stages alive. A win would also serve to mute some of the dissatisfaction surrounding Klinsmann's job performance. A "Fire Klinsmann" banner was clearly visible when the game started.
The U.S. got exactly what it needed, earning an emphatic 4-0 victory. Jermaine Jones delivered a monster two-way game in midfield, Clint Dempsey was much more involved in the attack and the defense was able to see out the win while keeping a clean sheet. As for the banner, it was no longer visible by game's end.
It raises the question of: How does the U.S., more often that not, respond in those situations? Attributes such as the relative strength of the next opponent and getting a home game at the right time play a part. But this is also a veteran group, and for all the excitement that surrounds young players such as Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic, it's clear that experience does count for something.
"We've talked so many times about the ability to know how to navigate a group stage," said U.S. captain Michael Bradley. "And, you know, it's not always going to be perfect. You know there's going to be ups and downs; you know there's going to be certain moments when you don't get exactly what you deserve. But you have to be able to keep a strong mentality and understand just how to keep yourself going, live to see another day, you know?"
He later added, "We have a lot of guys who have been in situations like this before. We spoke before the game about knowing that on these kinds of nights you need mentality, commitment and balls and all these things to carry you through."
Klinsmann deserves some credit here as well, and he proved himself to be tactically flexible in this match, reverting to a 4-4-2 in which Wood was paired up top with Dempsey. Soon a 2-0 lead, courtesy of Dempsey's penalty and Jones' well-placed strike, ballooned to 3-0 thanks to a goal from Wood, and the U.S. cruised from there.
Of course, looked at another way, why does the U.S. continue to back itself into must-win situations? Granted, the Colombia result was largely expected, and making life difficult for itself is in many ways a U.S. trait. As an example, the Americans blew a chance to take care of business at the 2002 World Cup when it lost its last group stage match to Poland 3-1, only to be rescued by South Korea's win over Portugal.
But some more-recent hiccups can't be written off so easily, such as the Guatemala loss. Inconsistency has been a hallmark of Klinsmann's time in charge.
That example is relevant given that the U.S. is now in control of its Copa America destiny ahead of Saturday's group-stage finale against Paraguay. A draw will almost certainly be enough to move on to the quarterfinals.
Costa Rica would have to thump Colombia by six goals for a draw to not be enough, which is simply not going to happen. But a loss would see the Americans eliminated, so Saturday's match against Paraguay is another potential step in the team's growth in that it would be a different kind of experience.
The U.S. has a chance to show a level of consistency, to close the deal on its own and not rely on help, and leave no doubt as to whether it belongs in the knockout stages. That would also be a sign that Klinsmann's up-and-down tenure is headed back up again.
Klinsmann, for his part, isn't even entertaining the possibility of falling short against Paraguay.
"I think that the team understands perfectly how the situation looks, that we have to get things done," he said. "They gave everything they have. They know now they've put ourselves back in the driver's seat with that result tonight.
"For us, it's not a thought, 'What if we would lose the game?' We never think that way. Some comments today were, 'What if you lose that game?' Why would you think that way? It's three games; find a way to get your points."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.