USMNT beats Paraguay to reach Copa America Centenario quarterfinals

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USMNT beats Paraguay to reach Copa America Centenario quarterfinals
USMNT beats Paraguay to reach Copa America Centenario quarterfinals

PHILADELPHIA – It was nervy, but the United States men's national team is into the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario.

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After a 2-0 loss to Colombia in their tournament opener, a 4-0 win against Costa Rica put them back on track. And on Saturday, the Yanks capped their group stage with a redeeming 1-0 victory over Paraguay on a Clint Dempsey goal, in spite of playing almost the entire second half with just 10 men. They were later rewarded the top spot in Group A thanks to Costa Rica's 3-2 upset of Colombia, setting up a Thursday quarterfinal in Seattle with the Group B runner-up.

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"It was just a wonderful team performance," U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "The crowd understood the moment, too, that this was a nail biter, Copa America. So they jumped and gave them support, gave them energy."

On an oppressively hot and humid day, Klinsmann, whose job would very much have been in peril had his side not claimed the requisite tie and advanced out of the group stage, did something unusual for him.

Nothing.

For the third game in a row, the endless tinkerer left his lineup unchanged – the first time since the 1930 World Cup that the U.S. replicated the same lineup thrice consecutively, apparently. Granted, it was a bit more 4-4-2-ish than the 4-3-3 the German had rolled out for the first two games of the tournament, but still.

Klinsmann spent the entirety of his almost five years in charge turning over his lineup and altering formations, but he finally settled on a regular team for this tournament. And it paid dividends on Saturday when the Americans looked cohesive defensively, well-connected in midfield and in sync going forward.

But truth be told, Paraguay had the better chances in the first half and the USA was a tad fortuitous to survive it with a lead. A series of key plays by John Brooks and goalkeeper Brad Guzan were to thank for this grace.

In the 11th minute of a choppy, physical, punch-and-counterpunch affair, the U.S. was caught high up the field when Fabian Johnson misplayed a tackle at the halfway line, sending Paraguay on a three-on-one break. But Brooks loped after them all and diffused Miguel Almiron's shot with an inch-perfect, last-ditch tackle. Then he pumped a fist. The defense only gained confidence from there.

Not much later, Dario Lezcano got a second-post header on a long cross that Guzan punched off his line.

But then, just before the half hour, an already threatening Gyasi Zardes was dispatched up the left wing on a nice team move. He got past his man and cut the ball back hard and low for Dempsey, who ran off his man and smashed his finish past Justo Villar.

On the brink of halftime, Lezcano found himself one-on-one with Guzan, but the American keeper parried the shot that likely should have been cut back for a wide-open teammate instead.

Perhaps things were going too smoothly, though. So after the intermission, DeAndre Yedlin managed to take two yellow cards within a minute, on consecutive plays. He committed a heavy foul in the opposing half. And then, a few touches after the restart, he charged through Miguel Samudio on the sideline.

That meant the dangerous Dempsey had to be pulled for Michael Orozco, and the U.S. spent much of the remainder of the game trying to bail the ball out of its own half.

"The mentality was very good. There's different ways to win games," captain Michael Bradley said. "Going down to 10 men, we knew that the mentality would have to carry us through. We were able to defend well, suffer together in certain moments, and still ultimately keep the game on our terms even though we were down defending and down a guy."

The Americans' work on the counterattack wasn't entirely unproductive, though.

Bobby Wood's endless toil paid off yet again just after the hour, when he won the ball high up the field. He scampered away, and after a long run, teed up Zardes. The latter didn't shoot quickly enough, however, and was closed down by a trailing defender.

A spirited final phase by the Americans in an increasingly chippy contest in front of 51,000 was punctuated by a pair of point-blank saves by Guzan in rapid succession.

That and a late Paraguayan goal that was rightly disallowed for offside salvaged the win, which wasn't pretty, exactly. But it was sufficient. And considering the stakes, it wasn't any less heartening for having been so hard-won.

"Obviously an absolutely fantastic performance, especially after the red card for DeAndre, which I saw – it's two yellows, totally fine," Klinsmann said. "They way they grinded it out, the way they kept the shape, discipline, the way they worked for each other was an absolutely outstanding performance. They all deserve a huge, huge compliment."

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

 

 

 

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