Clint Dempsey, USMNT still in Copa America critical mode against Paraguay

The final group day almost here.

The U.S. faces down Paraguay on Saturday (4 p.m. PT; FS1), and it seems like questions are proliferating around the U.S. Copa America Centenario camp faster than they’re being addressed.

Is this tournament a failure if the U.S. doesn’t make something of itself in the knockout stage?

Did Jurgen Klinsmann permanently forestall talk of his job status with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica?

Will Klinsmann stick with the 4-3-3?

Can Klinsmann’s substance-over-style way of thinking propel the U.S. into uncharted waters?

Indeed, there’s plenty on the line when the U.S. squares up against a quality Paraguay team that’s played well, but not quite well enough so far. A listless scoreless draw against Costa Rica preceded a wild game against Colombia in which they lost 2-1 despite the goal of the tournament from Victor Ayala. That sets the table for a critical clash in Philadelphia on Saturday.

As a result, the U.S. is teetering on the edge of progression to the quarterfinals, while Paraguay is merely teetering on the edge.

In truth the match is almost certainly more important for the future of the U.S. men’s national team than it is for Paraguay. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati commented last week that Klinsmann’s job status wasn’t ironclad following a desultory 2-0 loss to Colombia in the Copa America opener. Klinsmann, though, is nothing if not a master at rallying the troops in a crisis - aided by some helpful scheduling of course - and the U.S. responded by smashing Costa Rica by one of the tournament’s largest margins so far.

At least for now, that pushes any talk of Klinsmann’s wobbly job status to the backburner. The impressive Costa Rica win earned him a free ride for the rest of the tournament, pushing any controversy back to World Cup qualifying matches in the months to come.

Now, the U.S. simply focuses on soccer. And that’s good news.

The grand talking point from the Americans’ smashing win over their CONCACAF foes was the immense arrival of Clint Dempsey. In truth, Dempsey’s been the Americans’ most dangerous attacking player throughout the tournament so far, but he didn’t have much support in the Colombia loss. A not insignificant chunk of that was down to the 4-3-3 formation that shoehorned him into a center forward role in a 4-3-3.

Dempsey can play that position, but only if he’s paired with an inverted winger capable of pinching in and creating next to him consistently. Surprisingly enough, that happened against Costa Rica.

Klinsmann changed nothing - absolutely nothing - in his starting lineup from Colombia to Costa Rica, but that didn’t tell the whole story. Not long after Dempsey opened the scoring with a well taken penalty in the ninth minute, the U.S. switched to a 4-4-2 with Bobby Wood arrayed next to Dempsey.

This unlocked Dempsey’s creative side, and it was under the 4-4-2’s auspices that the U.S. scored all three of its goals in the run of play against Costa Rica. Jermaine Jones’ goal to make it 2-0 was spearheaded by a Dempsey-led mini-break. Wood’s goal to push the lead to 3-0 was generated by Dempsey, who found Wood at the top of the box for a brilliant turn-and-blast into the bottom left corner.

Surprise, surprise. Dempsey, who’d peeled away from the center forward position he’d been asked to occupy, found a true No. 9 for a lovely one-two. If it vaguely reminded Sounders fans of of the days of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, the moment was not so coincidental.

Given the success the U.S. had in this setup against Costa Rica, it’s unlikely we’ll see much of a change against Paraguay. And if Wood continues to play centrally and not out wide, where he was neutered in the opening 20 minutes against Costa Rica, this lineup is dangerous and capable of slaying a giant or two at this tournament.

First, though, the U.S. has to get by Paraguay, and the Costa Rica win made life considerably less gnawingly tense on the final group day. The U.S. is through automatically with a win, and it is almost guaranteed passage with a draw. The only way it would fail to progress by drawing Paraguay is if Costa Rica not only beats heavily favored Colombia, but does so by a seven-goal margin. Good luck with that, Ticos.

It matters, too, whether the U.S. finishes first or second in the group, another thing to monitor on Saturday. And fans in Seattle have a vested interest, too.

However unlikely it is that Costa Rica beats Colombia, the U.S. still has an outside shot at winning Group A and securing a knockout match at CenturyLink Field on June 16. To do that, the U.S. will have to beat Paraguay and hope Costa Rica beats Colombia, all while scoring more goals than the Colombians. It also matters for pairing reasons. The second-place team in the group will probably face Brazil. The group winner gets either Peru or Ecuador.

In any case, the U.S. is back on track after a rugged start to the tournament. A win against Paraguay and the Americans can start dreaming even bigger at the biggest soccer event on U.S. shores in more than two decades.

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