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The U.S. Advances, but Has It Made Any Progress?

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After a dispiriting 2–0 loss to Colombia to open the U.S. men’s national team’s Copa America Centenario campaign, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s positivity bordered on delusion. He was “absolutely OK” with the team’s performance, resolute that “there was no difference besides the two goals.” While two goals was the difference, the USMNT did improve after Klinsmann’s fireside chat, demolishing an OK Costa Rica team 4–0 and inching past Paraguay with an incredibly stressful 1–0 win to set a quarterfinal date with Ecuador.

Before the tournament began, the gaffer promised fans a semifinal berth, and it felt mostly like an exaggeration after last year’s fourth-place finish in the Gold Cup, a tournament that didn’t include Argentina, Chile, Brazil, or Uruguay. But with a nervy 2–1 win over the Ecuadorians on Thursday night, the team made good on its manager’s word. Even if they stopped now they could say that they’ve achieved greater international success than most American teams before them. They “progressed,” but have they actually made any sustainable … progress?

Yes!

Klinsmann’s tactical plan was … coherent. I had to rub my eyes. For starters, the defensive liability that is Michael Orozco was thankfully nowhere to be seen. Secondly, in place of the nigh-irreplaceable DeAndre Yedlin — who went completely out of his tree against Paraguay — Klinsmann played Matt Besler, which turned out to be a stroke of genius. Besler swapped flanks with the normally left-sided Fabian Johnson, and he stayed anchored as more of a third center back, freeing Johnson to bomb up the pitch, which is when he’s at his best. So while it was, technically speaking, a 4–4–2, it was in truth a 3–5–2, which left the USMNT exposed on occasion, but presented Ecuador with a nuanced look that made for some effective and (thank God) exciting attacking play. Which brings us to the next thing …

Going forward, the USMNT looked good! That is, of course, when Gyasi Zardes’s touch wasn’t failing him miserably.

The competency that came only in flashes during previous games stayed through the first half and into the second — until somewhere around when Antonio Valencia and Jermaine Jones both lost their minds and got sent off at the same time. Clint Dempsey had struggled to jell as the lone frontman with this team, but paired with Bobby Wood and flanked by a lively Zardes, Deuce was in near-perfect three-part harmony with his fellow attackers, grabbing a goal and an assist before being subbed off in the 72nd minute.

But Also, No!

Look at this.

The USMNT aren’t good enough to be so lax about defending set pieces. (It happened against Colombia, too!) Sure they had only 10 men after Jones decided it was a good idea to mush an opposing player in the face and blah, blah, blah, but tell me the back line doesn’t seem borderline disinterested that Michael Arroyo is just relaxing all cool at the top of the box, totally unmarked. Of course, maybe everyone was spent after playing 20 minutes on a suddenly bigger pitch. Speaking of which …

SUB. SOME. BODY. The lineup that Klinsmann trotted out worked brilliantly — they bent but didn’t break, they pressed together, they dropped together, and it was great. But the United States were lucky to squeeze out that 2–1 win, and the manager’s insistence on clinging to his starters helped lead to such a skittish finish. Most notably, Alejandro Bedoya, who buzzed around and pushed the game into Ecuador’s half for 65-ish minutes, was utterly gassed by the time he was mercifully replaced by Graham Zusi in the 81st minute. Maybe don’t pocket those subs for so long next time, Jürgen.

All told, this was a promising win for the USMNT. However, at home against a weaker Ecuador team, it was a game the Americans were expected to win — just as they were expected to lose to Colombia and handle Costa Rica. Should Argentina beat Venezuela in the teams’ quarterfinal match as they’re expected to do, the USMNT will have to face them without Wood and Bedoya, who’ve accumulated too many yellows, and Jones, who is suspended for the remainder of the tournament after picking up a straight red.

Meanwhile, the Argentines haven’t lost a game yet. They’ve conceded only a single goal and have a well-rested (he’s played only 106 total minutes so far) and in-form Lionel Messi. If the USMNT can beat the 14-time Copa America winners while so broken and in need of repair — that’d be progress.