- - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jurgen Klinsmann had grown used to the role of Goliath. He won a World Cup with Germany as a player in 1990, then claimed the European Championship six years later. His first job as a coach? Taking over that decorated program from 2004 to 2006.

But leading the U.S. national team over the past five years has gotten Klinsmann more accustomed to playing David. For a squad that hasn’t advanced to the final four of a World Cup since 1930, expectations are tempered.

As the U.S. prepares to open the Copa America Centenario knockout stage with a quarterfinal against Ecuador on Thursday in Seattle, Klinsmann thinks it’s time to flip the script.

“The whole old story is the underdog story, and I cannot hear that story anymore,” Klinsmann said. “The knockout stage is very mental-driven. It’s an absolute mental game. It’s when you step on the field and see certain jerseys, it’s kind of sniffing at each other and saying, ‘I’m ready for you.’ It’s all about the moment and this is what they need to believe in.”

The group stage didn’t do much to pin down the U.S. team’s identity. The Americans looked like underdogs as they fell behind early in a 2-0 loss to Colombia, then bounced back with a 4-0 hammering of Costa Rica.

Reduced to 10 men early in the second half on Saturday, the U.S. showed it could win ugly while grinding out a 1-0 victory over Paraguay to claim the top spot in Group A.

“We’ve said it since day one,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “We’re going to have ups and downs.”

That shutout against Paraguay served as the latest showcase for a defense that now has surrendered just two goals in the past five matches. John Brooks, a 23-year-old center back, appeared to come into his own with a dominating performance. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, long the understudy to Tim Howard, also stepped up with a six-save performance.

Although veteran Clint Dempsey and newcomer Bobby Wood have made for a formidable duo up top, the back line will be leaned on heavily as the competition ramps up in the knockout round.

“We’ve got quality players that can play good football, that can change the game for us,” Guzan said. “But you need that resolute defending, that hunger, that desire to block shots and put your body on the line.”

A key piece will be missing against Ecuador as right back DeAndre Yedlin is suspended after receiving a red card against Paraguay. Versatile defender Michael Orozco would be the straightforward replacement, though Edgar Castillo, Matt Besler and D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum are options if Klinsmann chooses to shift players out of position or adjust his formation.

One thing is certain: Klinsmann will be tweaking his lineup for the first time all tournament, as he had used the same starters in three consecutive matches — an occurrence that hadn’t happened for the U.S. in 86 years.

“It’s a team that really is having a good time and is there for each other,” Klinsmann said. “The whole bench is right there, and no matter who you bring off the bench they will give you everything they have.”

Victory could see the Americans pitted against Lionel Messi and No. 1-ranked Argentina for a semifinal in Houston, representing exactly the type of test Klinsmann wants his players to face in this knockout round.

But the U.S. won’t be looking past talented Ecuador, including dynamic wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero and lethal striker Enner Valencia.

The teams met just three weeks ago in a pre-tournament friendly, with the U.S. securing a last-gasp 1-0 win. After drawing Brazil and Peru, Ecuador booked its knockout-round slot with a 4-0 win against Haiti on Sunday.

“Ecuador is a very good team, as we all know,” Klinsmann said. “After a World Cup, this is the second-biggest stage that you can have. Hopefully, they enjoy it and hopefully they go on the field Thursday night with a lot of pride and also a lot of confidence — and then we’re going to give it a fight the whole 90 minutes.”

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