It took an absolutely wild and stressful match to do the job, but the United States assured their advancement to the Copa America knockout rounds after beating Paraguay 1-0 in front of a loud Philadelphia crowd. Despite going down to 10 men early in the second half, they made Clint Dempsey's first-half goal stand.
The match started off wide-open, with both teams racing forward to try to find a vital early goal. It took some impressive defending from John Brooks to keep Paraguay from scoring early. The referee also made his presence felt early and often, trying to keep the game from getting overly physical by being very free with calling fouls.
Both the U.S. and Paraguay tried to take advantage of the steady stream of set piece opportunities they had early on, with the USMNT in particular struggling to defend them well. It was a quickfire counter attack that created the game's opening goal, though, with a run up the left from Gyasi Zardes opening Paraguay's defense, and his cross in front of goal finding the run of Clint Dempsey to hammer the ball home and put the U.S. up 1-0.
The U.S. were able to control affairs for the rest of the first half, knowing that a 1-0 score suited them perfectly. A win guaranteed advancement to the knockout rounds for the USMNT, and even if Paraguay came back to level the score, they were almost certainly going through. That meant the pressure was all on Paraguay, giving the U.S. the freedom to sit back and respond as necessary -- though it took a couple of truly heroic moments of defending from John Brooks to make sure they got out of the first half with their lead intact.
The second half was a very, very different matter. Two rash challenges from DeAndre Yedlin just moments apart from one another saw the U.S. fullback earn two quick yellow cards and an early shower, putting his team down a man and into desperation mode. Things got very tense and very wild as the second half unfolded, with both teams desperate to score a goal and even more desperate to avoid conceding.
That desperation brought an almost violent edge to the game, with a number of rash and hard challenges put out by both teams. The referee, so eager to keep control early in the match, completely lost all semblance of that control as the second half wore on, with his foul calls and yellow cards doing little to reign in two teams who knew that everything was on the line.
Paraguay started to take more and more advantage of their man advantage as the half wore on, flying into the final third almost at will at times. John Brooks and Geoff Cameron put in an immense performance in front of goal to keep them at bay, but even then in the 80th minute Brad Guzan was forced to make a massively impressive double-save in order to keep Paraguay off the board. The U.S. were forced to make the ultimate desperation move after that -- taking off their last striker on the pitch in Bobby Wood to put in another defensive midfielder to do anything they could to keep Paraguay at bay.
The last minutes of the match were stressful ones for U.S. fans, especially when Paraguay put the ball in the back of the net in the 88th minute -- only for the goal to be waved away for offsides. Brooks was again called on in a huge moment in stoppage time, just forcing a Paraguay run wide to spoil what had looked like an incredibly dangerous attack -- just another huge play in what was a Man of the Match performance for the young USMNT defender.
When the final whistle blew, you could feel the tension release from the crowd -- the U.S. had held onto their win and will be in the Copa America Centenario knockout rounds. It wasn't as easy of a game as they wanted, but they got the job done. Now they'll be watching to see exactly where they finish in Group A -- and then who finishes where in Group B to see who they face next. For now, though, they celebrate their win -- and figure out how to adjust for the matches to come.
United States: Brad Guzan; DeAndre Yedlin (red 48'), Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson; Gyasi Zardes, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya (Graham Zusi 75'); Bobby Wood (Kyle Beckerman 83'), Clint Dempsey (Michael Orozco 50')
Goal: Dempsey (27')
Paraguay: Justo Villar; Paulo Da Silva, Gustavo Gomez, Fabian Balbuena (Juan Itube 46'), Miguel Samudio; Derlis Gonzalez, Victor Ayala, Celso Ortiz (Rodrigo Rojas 55'), Miguel Almiron; Arnaldo Sanabria (Jorge Benitez 63'), Dario Lezcano
Three things we learned
Clint Dempsey is much better with Bobby Wood as a striker partner ...
In the first two USMNT matches in the Copa America, and in their warmup friendlies as well, we saw a 4-3-3 shape with Clint Dempsey up top on his own playing as a false nine. We also saw him struggle badly, because as good at that role as Dempsey was earlier in his career, age has stripped him of his ability to play it effectively now.
While this match against Paraguay started with the same players as the last two matches, the shape did not stay the same. The U.S. deployed in more of a 4-4-2 shape, with Bobby Wood coming in from the left wing to partner with Dempsey, leading the line while Dempsey used his presence to find space to work with creatively behind him. That arrangement worked much better for Dempsey, because with Wood running with him it became much more difficult to mark him out like we had seen in the last several games. That combination also helped create the opening goal of the game, with Wood doing a lot to clear space for Dempsey to get to the ball and score, forcing Paraguay's center backs to drop deeper in front of goal and giving Dempsey the opening he needed to make his run and get to Gyasi Zardes' cross.
... but the Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones two-man midfield still doesn't work.
Of course, soccer is very much a game of finding the right balances, and it's rare to find a significant improvement like changing the shape to partner Wood and Dempsey without there being a downside as well. This time it was renewing the Bradley-Jones two-man midfield partnership that has rarely worked out well for the USMNT, one with two players who always want to do the same things going forward and aren't as disciplined in defense and positioning as they probably should be. Working in a three-man midfield, you can find ways to balance them out with a partner, but the 4-4-2 the U.S. ran in this game doesn't allow for that.
And in this game against Paraguay, especially in the first half before the DeAndre Yedlin red forced major tactical changes for the U.S., we saw exactly why Bradley and Jones aren't a good pairing. Paraguay's best chances consistently came through the middle of the pitch, constantly catching one or the other of the pair out of position and bypassing them with ease. That put a lot of pressure on the USMNT back line, and if it weren't for a heroic performance from John Brooks in central defense, we might be talking about a very different result.
DeAndre Yedlin cost the USMNT dearly
Yedlin's early second-half red card -- after picking up two bookings within a minute of each other -- left the U.S. in a huge lurch. Not only were they a man down, they had to take Dempsey off to bring on Michael Orozco to continue fielding a complete back line, seriously hamstringing their attack in the process.
And make no mistake: Yedlin deserved his sending off. You can argue the legitimacy of his first yellow -- he got the ball, but left his feet in afterwards, which some referees will punish as a safety issue -- but you could also make the argument that after he got a little too amped-up and made some rash challenges in the first half, his first yellow was the referee trying to get him under control. The second yellow, though, was unquestionably earned, a stupidly rash challenge that you should never make, especially seconds after already being booked once. It was a shocking loss of discipline from Yedlin, which is especially disappointing under the circumstances.
But his sending off hurts the U.S. even more in their next match, which will likely be against Brazil. Already a difficult matchup, it will be even worse without Yedlin on the pitch -- Orozco trying to defend Philippe Coutinho has the makings to be the stuff of nightmares for USMNT fans. They'll also miss his attacking presence from fullback in that match, as overlapping runs from he and Fabian Johnson would have been a big key to unlocking Brazil's defense. The U.S. are going to have to make a lot of adjustments without Yedlin, and this side will not be as good without him.