When the final whistle sounded on the U.S. national team’s 1-0 win over Paraguay on Saturday, players rushed off the bench to embrace the starters near the midfield circle.
Clint Dempsey, who scored the only U.S. goal, exchanged a hug and a handshake with defender John Brooks, who prevented two Paraguayan goals. Gyasi Zardes, who set up Dempsey’s score with a dart of a pass, shared a smile and an embrace with Darlington Nagbe.
And Coach Juergen Klinsmann moved briskly through the circle, grabbing and congratulating anyone wearing a U.S. jersey.
With the victory, combined with Colombia’s loss to Costa Rica later Saturday, Klinsmann’s team won its four-team group and moved on to the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario, where its reward with be a date Thursday in Seattle with the second-place finisher in Group B — a team that will emerge Sunday from the trio of Brazil, Peru and Ecuador.
Months ago Klinsmann promised the U.S. would make it this far — at least. But the giddy postgame celebration Saturday suggested neither the players nor the coach had been fully confident in that prediction.
“I’m proud about this team and just the character they showed. The determination, the heart,” Dempsey said. “Now it’s about when you advance out of the group, what are you doing to do? Hopefully we can keep pushing.”
Reaching the knockout round of a major tournament is no longer rare for the U.S., which has advanced out of group play in the last seven events it has played in.
The last two times it did that in a World Cup, though, it lost its next game. That’s the challenge Klinsmann’s group faces now.
“It’s getting more exciting,” the coach said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our team now to play these types of games. We have nothing to lose.”
Klinsmann, however, had everything to lose Saturday, including his job. After the U.S. finished fourth in last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, then stumbled in a World Cup qualifier in Guatemala this spring, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, long Klinsmann’s biggest backer, began equivocating about the coach’s future.
“We have to win games,” Gulasi said last week. “No one has iron-clad job security. For coaches and players, it is about results.”
The U.S. got a big result Saturday, though it was neither easy nor convincing.
Playing in front of 51,041 at Lincoln Financial Field, Dempsey scored the only goal the game would see in the 27th minute, latching on to a low left-footed cross from Zardes just in front of the penalty spot and driving the ball into the center of the net.
But the U.S. had to work hard to make the goal stand up. Defender Brooks made two crucial clearances in the first half that may have saved goals, including one in the 11th minute when he made up a ton of ground to catch Miguel Almiron in the penalty area, then took the ball off the Paraguayan’s boot with a sliding tackle.
It was the best defensive play of the tournament for the U.S.
“This is a big statement, what he did tonight,” Klinsmann said.
Things got even more dicey in the second half when DeAndre Yedlin was expelled after drawing two yellow cards a minute apart, leaving the U.S. a man down for the final 43 minutes. But while the U.S. bent under a relentless Paraguayan attack, it didn’t break, thanks largely to goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who made four stout saves.
So now the U.S., something of a longshot to reach the second round after losing its group-play opener, goes on to the quarterfinals as the group champion instead. It hasn’t overcome a first-game loss to advance in a tournament since 2009.
Klinsmann is making no predictions how the team will do in the next round. But he said a victory should be no surprise because in addition to a win Saturday, his term earned some well-deserved respect as well.
“The whole old story is the underdog story. And I cannot hear that story anymore,” Klinsmann said. “And I want to see them risks things; let’s go for it. Take the game to them.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter: @kbaxter11