CHICAGO – Jurgen Klinsmann demanded more offensive creativity and better finishing from his United States men's national team in Tuesday's make-or-break game against Costa Rica in the Copa America Centenario.
Clint Dempsey provided both.
The 33-year-old emerged as the catalyst of a devastating U.S. attack, converting a ninth-minute penalty and setting up two more goals by Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood in a tournament-saving 4-0 victory over the rival Ticos at Soldier Field.
The result – the USA's biggest victory ever over Costa Rica – was just another upward swing after a stomach-turning dip in the rollercoaster ride that has become Klinsmann's tenure as USMNT head coach and technical director. A lackluster 2-0 loss to Colombia last Friday heaped more pressure on the German, as the Americans stood to be eliminated just five days into the tournament with a loss to Costa Rica.
"It was important to get off to a good start," said Dempsey, whose goal was the 50th of his USMNT career. "Once we scored that first one, second and third one, we started to get in a rhythm."
Dempsey was the most effective forward in the United States' 4-3-3 formation against the No. 3-ranked Colombians, winning fouls in dangerous spots. So it was no surprise he would be the central figure of the attack again.
What was surprising was the ruthlessness of the USA. After Wood was given a penalty after being pushed in the back by Cristian Gamboa, Dempsey calmly converted from the spot for a 1-0 lead just nine minutes in.
Dempsey turned creator for the next two U.S. goals, which were scored in just a five-minute span. Running rampant on a counterattack, the Seattle Sounders star took on two defenders and cut the ball back onto his left foot to softly set up an oncoming Jones, whose one-timed shot bounced past goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton inside the far post to give the Americans a 2-0 lead in the 37th minute.
Dempsey continued to be a one-man nuisance for Costa Rica in the 42nd minute. He found Wood at the top of the box, where the 23-year-old quickly turned and fired a rocket off Pemberton's outstretched hand and into the left corner for a 3-0 cushion.
"I've known him for a long time," Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz said of Dempsey, his former teammate at Fulham in the Premier League. "We know how good he is. Whe he turned, he took us into the counterattack. He did good today; we didn't mark him good."
Costa Rica had more possession in the first half (57 percent), but the U.S. made the most of its time on the ball, outshooting the visitors 7-2 and converting all three of its attempts on goal. The three-goal deficit was enough for head coach Oscar Ramirez to essentially call it a night, as he substituted star midfielder Joel Campbell and right back Gamboa.
Ramirez's switch to a high press caught the Americans off guard and had them scrambling defensively early on, but Gamboa's foul on Wood changed everything.
"We were determined to take over the game all over again," Ramirez said. "But then we lost a few balls here and there and they [the U.S.] counterattacked. It was very effective. The second and third goals were scored extremely quickly."
Graham Zusi came on for Wood in the 70th minute and got in on the fun in the 87th minute with a well-taken left-footed strike for the final margin.
The U.S. now finds itself in position to reach the knockout stage, after Tuesday's win and three points moved it into second place behind unbeaten Group A leader Colombia. The Americans can advance with a victory in Saturday's group finale against Paraguay.
"The job is not done," Dempsey warned. "We've got to go into the next game preparing the same way."