The Yanks squeak out a monster win while playing with 10 men for almost half of the match.
Philadelphia is a city that already has its fair share of legendary sport stories. I can think of one about an Average Joe from the 1970s who trains and trains, only to become a professional sports star. I’m talking of course about the all-time classic, Invincible starring Mark Wahlberg. What were you thinking of?
When the US took the pitch at Lincoln Financial Field Saturday night in the city of Brotherly Love, they knew that they had to produce a result. What they didn’t know was that the ninety minutes (more like one hundred minutes, for reasons we’ll get into later) that lied before them would require them to fight tooth and nail to scrape out a 1-0 victory.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE…
The Yanks came out with the same Starting XI as their two previous matches, marking the first time manager Jurgen Klinsmann has brought out the same lineup three consecutive times. The one adjustment was bringing Gyasi Zardes back from the wing into the midfield. This was kinda already happening in the previous matches, as Zardes put up 14 combined tackles, interceptions, and recoveries against Costa Rica. This meant Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood were the two lone strikers, constantly making crossing runs to mix up the Paraguayan central defenders.
The US attack was similar to that against Paraguay. Fullbacks Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin shepherded the balls up the sidelines with deft pace. What was different though, was the amount the US midfield was passing on the ground in traffic. While the referee’s whistle was once again active, both teams were incredibly physical. This meant that the trio of Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, and Jermaine Jones were under constant pressure, yet they handled themselves well.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
The Man of the Match by quite some distance was US center back John Brooks. The performance was sensational because it was composed of both big playmaking and consistency. Brooks made his first statement during a 3-on-1 counter attack from the Paraguayans. It was the type of breakaway that would look more at home in an NHL game than in a soccer match. John Brooks, the sole American tracking back, was patient, waiting until a pass was made to Miguel Almiron, then going in for a clean tackle.
Brooks followed up this clean tackle with a total of 14 clearances on the night. It was the best defensive performance for the US since Tim Howard singlehandedly cock blocked the entire Belgian offense in the 2014 World Cup.
ARE YOU BLIND?
The main job of a referee is not to be seen. If the referee is not mentioned in a game recap, it means, for the most part, they did their job correctly. This is not one of those recaps. Chilean referee Julio Bascunan and his crew were the center of much debate Saturday night. Much like the US’s game against Costa Rica, Bascunan was busy with his whistle, trying his best to prevent excessive physical play. However, Bascunan’s efforts were moot, as both teams were defending with hard, aggressive tackles.
This came to a head just after halftime, when Bascunan dealt DeAndre Yedlin his first yellow card in the 47th minute. While the tackle was aggressive, by the rules of the game, it was clean. Bascunan whistled and carded Yedlin to much protest, but in the ref’s eyes, he was trying to set the tone for the second half. The booking almost instantly became controversial less than two minutes later, when Yedlin came in hard for a tackle that led to him receiving his second yellow, and putting the US a man down for almost all of the second half. This second foul was undoubtedly a yellow card—while Yedlin slipped making his challenge, it was clear that he was coming in too fast and had no chance of preventing a rash tackle.
If this was the only way that Bascunan had made an impact on the game, it would have been controversial. Yet, Bascunan went on to let a lot of physical Paraguayan play go uncalled for the next twenty minutes, causing US assistant coach Andi Herzog to nearly blow a gasket. As players started to get chippy, Bascunan went down from an apparent cramp, causing a four minute stoppage of play, and leading to six minutes of stoppage time at the end of ninety minutes. These were six extremely unwelcome minutes from the home fans, who felt hard done by after their side fended off attack after attack during a second half that felt extremely long for US supporters. All in all, it’s clear that if Bascunan calls any games in the future, he will need to get a better handle on the match before disciplining players.
THE FUTURE HINGES ON… GYASI?
Gyasi Zardes is an epitome. The epitome of what US Soccer produces in terms of incomplete players. Zardes is an impeccable physical machine—his lightning speed is paired with a 6-foot 2-inch frame and perfect coif. What he’s missing, however, is technical confidence and mental toughness. Playing on the left side, Zardes often finds himself with a difficult decision at the top left corner of the 18-yard box—dribble for the goal line and cross the ball in, or cut inside. The former produced the game’s only assist, falling to the feet of US forward Clint Dempsey for a drive home in the 27th minute. The latter produced turnover after turnover.
Zardes has found himself in prime goal-scoring positions many times in this tournament, but has yet to score. This was exemplified in the 62nd minute, when Bobby Wood found Zardes in open space on a breakaway. With Paraguay’s defense rushing in, Zardes couldn’t even muster a shot from ten yards out. This would have given the US a two-goal cushion while playing with ten men, and all but secured the US’s spot in the knockout stage. Instead, the US had to play another thirty-three minutes on their defensive heels. Considering how many opportunities Zardes has had through the group stage, I’d go so far as to say that the US’s prospects in Copa America will hinge on Gyasi Zardes’s ability (or inability) to score.
The US walked off the pitch at Lincoln Financial Field victorious Saturday night. They did not know that they would in fact win Group A, after Colombia dropped a 3-2 decision to an already eliminated Costa Rican side. Based on the form of their last two games, the Yanks are playing their best competitive soccer in a decade. However, there is still a ton of room for improvement. For instance, our defensive performance against set pieces is still abysmal. For the first thirty minutes, Paraguay was able to get the first touch on every offensive set piece they played. This has to improve, especially with the threat of Brazil looming as a possible knockout stage match-up. Another area of possible improvement is on the wings. US No. 9 Clint Dempsey has shown from Brazil to now that he will deliver if he is fed the ball from the high wings. Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes must be unselfish and make runs to the goal line and cross into Dempsey as opposed to trying to cut inside themselves.
Jurgen Klinsmann seems to have found a groove with his American side. Playing a consistent line-up is a luxury only afforded to club coaches, but Klinsmann has done his best to replicate that during Copa America. With some relatively minor adjustments and added mental toughness, Klinsmann’s US side can be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of Copa, or a footnote of this historic tournament.