Klinsmann's decisions as United States prepares for Copa America semifinals
SEATTLE -- The U.S. men's national team could be forgiven for taking some extra time to bask in the afterglow of its quarterfinal triumph over Ecuador in the Copa America Centenario.
Let's face it: Excluding the Gold Cup, it's not that often the U.S. wins a knockout game in an international tournament. You have to go back to the 2009 Confederations Cup, when the Americans beat heavyweight Spain 2-0, to find the last time they won such a match after the group stage. So when the players gathered in a circle at midfield after the final whistle, singing and jumping in unison, it was a right they had earned. Now they'll face the winner of Saturday's quarterfinal between Argentina and Venezuela on Tuesday in Houston.
"It was a great night," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "To go deep into a tournament, you need to be able to win games in different ways. I think we've done that. We've had nights where we played very well, scored goals. We've had other nights where we've had to defend, to suffer together, to make sure that our mentality carries us through. Tonight was probably a little bit of both."
After playing perhaps its best, most balanced half of the Copa, the U.S. survived a chaotic second 45 minutes to claim a 2-1 victory. The price it paid was steep, however. Jermaine Jones was sent off in the 52nd minute along with Ecuadorian midfielder Antonio Valencia. Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya later picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, meaning they'll be suspended for the semifinal. A U.S. soccer spokesman told ESPN FC that it was considering appeals for Jones' ejection and Wood's yellow card. That said, it seems unlikely the U.S. will get the relief it seeks.
So now Klinsmann must look forward, and he faces another set of tricky selection decisions. He certainly deserves immense credit for getting his choice of players right against Ecuador. He slotted Fabian Johnson in at right-back for the suspended DeAndre Yedlin, and deployed Matt Besler -- normally a center-back -- at left-back. Given Besler's lack of experience at the position, it seemed risky, but it worked. Both held up well for the most part against Ecuadorian wingers Jefferson Montero and Valencia, though Montero found more space after the dual ejections. The U.S. midfield also provided Johnson and Besler with loads of defensive support.
But now Klinsmann is faced with finding replacements for three players, not one. And while Venezuela has been one of the surprises of the tournament, Argentina is a heavy favorite to move on to play the hosts in Houston. The Albiceleste have a glut of talent, but most of all, Klinsmann will need to plan for one Lionel Messi.
"Well, we'll take it the way it kind of comes along," Klinsmann said. "We don't need to talk Argentina any bigger than they are. We had two years ago [Cristiano] Ronaldo coming to Manaus, [with Portugal]; big game, too. We had them down there 2-1 until the 96th minute. So we'll give everything we have with all the respect for the opponent. We'll talk about the opponent the same as Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay because they're all wonderful teams. But we've come so far now and we get even hungrier for the next now, even if we totally understand it's a big one."
There are some simple decisions for Klinsmann. One is in the center of midfield, where Kyle Beckerman is the likely choice to replace Jones, playing alongside Bradley, although Darlington Nagbe is an option as well. Yedlin has served his suspension, meaning he can resume his place on the right side of the U.S. defense.
There is some merit to the idea of pushing Johnson into a wide midfield role, but that would mean sticking with Besler for another game at left back. That seems a step too far. Playing Besler there against Ecuador is one thing. Putting him up against the likes of Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria and, in particular, Messi is quite another. That points to Johnson returning to left-back, but as you'll see, this choice can end in a blind alley.
Wood will be difficult to replace. His diagonal runs did plenty to upset Ecuador's defense, and his presence has been a boon to Clint Dempsey, who scored for the third consecutive game. Gyasi Zardes could be deployed up top given that he's played a similar role at times for the LA Galaxy, and he'd be in a position to give Dempsey the support the Seattle forward needs to be effective. Klinsmann seemed to be leaning that way in his postgame news conference, as he talked up the growth of Zardes and Wood in the same breath. That would leave Graham Zusi to play one of the wide midfield slots.
So if Johnson is at left-back, there is one more hole to fill, and Klinsmann's options are down to two players who have never started a game for the U.S. national team: Nagbe and Christian Pulisic. Nagbe, at 25 years old, is more experienced. Pulisic is just 17 but has the Bundesliga pedigree. Klinsmann could opt to deploy one of them centrally, leaving Zardes to help protect one of the flanks, or trust them to play out wide. Or Klinsmann could just keep Besler at left-back and move Johnson to left mid, and spare two inexperienced players at the international level from being thrown to the Argentine wolves. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Klinsmann go that route.
Of course, there will be more to the team's preparation than deciding on personnel. There will be the task of coming down from the high of Thursday's victory. But the U.S. won't want to wash all of that good feeling away. The team's confidence is at its peak, and it'll need to carry that into the semifinal regardless of the opponent.
"It's a semifinal, it's a huge occasion," Bradley said. "It's a big game, it's a chance to get into the final. If it's Argentina, great. If it's Venezuela, we'll be ready the same way."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.