CHICAGO — For the second time in three months, the Jurgen Klinsmann era finds itself teetering on the brink.
Late March brought a home World Cup qualifier against Guatemala in which defeat would have all but eliminated the U.S. national team from Russia in 2018. The response? A resounding 4-0 win.
Now, Tuesday presents a do-or-die match in the Copa America Centenario. After a 2-0 loss to Colombia to open the tournament on Friday, the U.S. would be ousted from the group stage with a loss to Costa Rica at Soldier Field.
“Everybody’s ready for the game,” forward Clint Dempsey said. “It’s a must-win situation. We’ve got our backs against the wall. We’ve been there before.”
For a team that ended up fourth at the Gold Cup in 2015 for its worst finish in 15 years, dropped a Confederations Cup playoff to Mexico in October and kicked off World Cup qualifying in unconvincing fashion, failure to reach the Copa America knockout round on home soil would be seen as a crippling blow to the national team’s record under Klinsmann.
But a win would put the U.S. on course for passage to the quarterfinals. The defeat against Colombia, an elite team, was no surprise, and the U.S. hasn’t lost to Costa Rica at home in a competitive match since 1989. A scoreless draw between Costa Rica and Paraguay also added hope, with neither team gaining much of a leg up on the Americans.
“I think everybody is a little bit too much a critic,” defender John Brooks said. “It’s a little bit bad, but we’re still in the game. Costa Rica and Paraguay tied, so everything is open for us.”
Midfielder Darlington Nagbe added: “We played our toughest opponent that we’re going to face. The next two games is a good opportunity for us to go there and take points.”
Klinsmann could turn to his depth as the U.S. tries to bounce back from the shutout loss to Colombia, with Nagbe and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic the most logical options to enter the lineup. Veterans Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi also are in the mix if Klinsmann wants to rely on players who have stepped up for him in the past.
Yet, the U.S. coach seemingly has faith in the players who dropped the opener against Colombia, emphasizing his satisfaction with the performance aside from the two set-piece goals conceded.
“I think we all do understand what’s at stake — it’s a must-win situation,” Klinsmann said. “Tomorrow night we are full of energy, full of optimism to get the full three points.”
A shorthanded Costa Rican squad will play into the Americans’ favor. Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas is sitting out the tournament with an injured left Achilles’ tendon, standout defender Giancarlo Gonzalez is taking the summer off to rest, and hulking center back Kendall Waston is suspended after receiving a red card against Paraguay.
While Costa Rica is a formidable opponent that advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2014, the Ticos certainly present a less daunting assignment than the one the U.S. faced on Friday.
It makes for a critical task on Tuesday — but a doable one.
“You guys all didn’t expect us to beat Colombia anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” defender Geoff Cameron said to reporters. “We know it’s going to be a difficult game, but we believe in ourselves, we believe in the ability that we have and it’s another opportunity for us to get a win.”