SEATTLE – We got it wrong. And by "we" I am talking about the media – or, to be fair, the majority of soccer pundits in this country – who looked at this United States men's national team after one game in the Copa America Centenario and refused to see what Jurgen Klinsmann and his players saw in themselves.
They told us that they played well against "a really good team" in losing 2-0 to Colombia, No. 3 in the world according to FIFA's latest rankings, but that self-assessment still rang hollow even though some of the match statistics backed them up. The eye test said the U.S. was nowhere near the Colombians' level. So, the press focused on the possibility of a disastrous early Copa exit, the increasingly tenuous job status of Klinsmann and the subsequent daunting comments of U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati over the need for better results.
Lineup selections were questioned. Tactics were dissected and criticized. And Gyasi Zardes's first touch was ridiculed – again.
But everything we thought we knew about this USMNT was well off the mark. Because this is not the same U.S. side that has been stuck in mediocrity and even regressed into abject failure at times over the past year. No, this Copa America team of the Red, White and Blue is much, much different.
Because this American team is supremely and unapologetically confident. Bursting with confidence, really.
Never before has a 23-man squad assembled by Klinsmann been so steadfast and defiant about its abilities and potential. And it is oozing with so much belief in itself that it banded together to prove it was right by winning three straight games to finish top of Group A and advance to the semifinals, courtesy of Thursday's 2-1 win over Ecuador.
"We came in with a lot of confidence," Bobby Wood said. "I think our team is just growing with each game, even though everyone wrote us off. We kind of just showed everyone that we're ready, and we made it to the semis."
The Americans can be so bold because they actually have the game to back up their words.
During Klinsmann's five-year tenure at the helm of the U.S. men's program, there has never been a more cohesive group that complements itself so well. A 33-year-old Clint Dempsey can be the playmaker while the 23-year-old Wood runs defenses ragged with his sneaky bursts in the attacking third. A diversely skilled Fabian Johnson can seamlessly switch between lockdown fullback to midfield facilitator serving up incisive crosses. 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 attack is the biggest difference. Not since the USA's breakout 2002 World Cup team that reached the quarterfinals has an American side stood toe to toe in a major international tournament and gone forward throwing power punches and be willing to get hit in return.
It's a far departure from the usual defensive mindset – and offensive reluctance – the U.S. has showed throughout the Klinsmann era, most notably at the 2014 World Cup where the style 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 victory on Thursday. "Your confidence is only built over a long period of time. When you play big teams, you get some results against big teams. … That's where you grow. That's where you learn.
"Obviously there's always a risk that you maybe lose. They [the players] are just getting more and more of those messages. They understand more and more what that next level is about."
It's no coincidence that this new-found resiliency and resoluteness comes at the same time Klinsmann finally settles on a set lineup. He drew criticism for the constant experimentation and turning over of every stone in search of the missing pieces to his mystery puzzle. Apparently, it took the right group to gain his trust and stop the excessive tinkering.
As the players' reward, Klinsmann has rolled out the same lineup for three straight games before having to make changes for the Ecuador game due to DeAndre Yedlin's red-card suspension. He will have to adjust his starting XI further. Bedoya and Wood will miss Tuesday's semifinal in Houston due to yellow card accumulation and Jermaine Jones won't be available either due to his 52nd-minute red card from his blowup in retaliation to Ecuador's Antoino Valencia's rash challenge on Bedoya.
Whoever gets the call off the bench will be expected to play with the same level of self-assurance.
"When you get deep into a tournament, you have to be able to win games in different ways," captain Michael Bradley said. "We've done that."
"Our mentality," he added, "carries us through."
The confidence 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 fear. It is welcomed.
Play Argentina? Of course. Beat Argentina? Let's see your best shot.
"Yeah, we're confident," Wood said of a USA-Argentina matchup. "We're confident that we can keep up with any team, for sure."