They told us that they played decent against “a great team” in losing 2-0 to Colombia, No. 3 in the world according to FIFA’s latest positions, but that self-evaluation still rang hollow even though some of the match numbers backed them up. So, the press focused on the chance of a disastrous early Copa exit, the increasingly tenuous occupation standing of Klinsmann and the subsequent daunting comments of U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati over the need for better results.
Lineup choices were challenged. Strategies were dissected and criticized. And Gyasi Zardes’s first touch was ridiculed.
But everything we thought we understood about this USMNT was off the mark. Because this isn’t the same U.S. side that has been put in mediocrity and even regressed into abject failure at times over the previous year.
Never before has a 23-man squad gathered by Klinsmann been steadfast and defiant about its abilities and potential. And it is oozing with this much belief in itself that it banded together to show it was right by winning three straight matches to progress to the semifinals, courtesy of Thursday’s 2-1 win over Ecuador.
“We came in with lots of assurance,” Bobby Wood said. “I believe our team is only growing with each match, even though everyone wrote us off. We kind of just showed everyone that we’re ready, and we made it to the semis.”
A 33-year old Clint Dempsey can be the playmaker while the 23-year old Wood runs defenses ragged in the attacking third with his sneaky explosions. A diversely skilled Fabian Johnson can change to midfield facilitator serving incisive crosses up between lockdown fullback. And a midfielder like Alejandro Bedoya can be just as impactful on either end of the field with a tireless work ethic.
This swagger in assault is the biggest difference. Not since the breakout of the USA 2002 World Cup team that reached the quarterfinals has an American side gone forward throwing power punches and stood toe to toe in a major international tournament and be willing to get hit in return.
It’s a far departure from the normal defensive mindset – and offensive unwillingness – the U.S. has revealed throughout the Klinsmann age, most notably at the 2014 World Cup where the fashion of play was no different than Bob Bradley’s teams.
“This team is more convinced, more confident,” Klinsmann said after his team’s latest breakthrough success on Thursday. “Your assurance is solely assembled over a long period of time. When you play big teams, you get some results against teams that are large. … That is where you grow. That’s where you learn.
“Obviously there’s always a danger that you perhaps lose. They [the players] are only getting more and more of those messages. They comprehend more and more what that next degree is about.”
It is no coincidence that this new found resoluteness and resiliency comes at exactly the same time Klinsmann finally settles on a set lineup. He drew criticism for the constant experimentation and turning over of every rock in search of the missing bits to his enigma puzzle. Apparently, it took the proper group to gain his trust and stop the excessive tinkering.
As the players’ wages, Klinsmann has rolled out the same lineup for three straight matches before having to make changes for the Ecuador game due to DeAndre Yedlin’s red card suspension. He will have to fix his starting XI further. Bedoya and Wood will miss Tuesday’s semifinal, Jermaine Jones won’t be unavailable either due to his yellow card accumulation -minute red card from his blowup to the reckless challenge on Bedoya of Ecuador’s Antoino Valencia in retaliation.
Whoever gets the call off the seat will be expected to play with the same level of self-assurance.
“When you get deep into a tournament, you have to have the ability to win matches in different manners,” captain Michael Bradley said. “We have done that.”
“Our mindset,” he added, “carries us through.”
The assurance of the U.S. is indeed soaring, so much so that if it draws Argentina in the semis, the task of going up against Lionel Messi and the world’s top-ranked team is not met with panic. It is welcomed.
Play Argentina? Of course. Conquer Argentina? Let’s see your best shot.
“Yeah, we’re convinced,” Wood said of an USA-Argentina matchup.