Usually, when the US national team display the kind of work rate, drive and overall effort that they did in the final group-stage match of the 2016 Copa America, the opponent is a scrappy CONCACAF side like Honduras or Guatemala or Trinidad and Tobago. It isn't often that they perform that way in a CONMEBOL-heavy tournament like the Copa America, but against Paraguay on Saturday night, it was entirely necessary.
And it worked. A gutsy performance that included six yellow cards—including two to the starting right-back—ended in a narrow yet impressive 1-0 victory over Paraguay, which set the table for the Colombia loss later that night that secured the USMNT's place atop Group A. The stars were on top of their game—not just the Dempseys and Bradleys, however—and the team appeared to coalesce in the new 4-4-2 formation that they've been playing. It's something we hadn't seen for most of Klinsmann's tenure.
We certainly saw it in a second straight shutout victory over a quality opponent in group play, one that will likely lead to a quarterfinal match against Peru or Ecuador instead of Brazil. Sure, they got some help from Costa Rica and the interesting managerial decisions made by Jose Pekerman, but they also got some help from the players who they needed help from.
Most notably, John Brooks played the game of his life in central defense. He made possibly the best defensive play of the tournament when he shut down a 3-on-1 counter attack in the 10th-minute, he consistently made good reads and stepped up when needed, and he was at his best when the ball came into the box, heading away clearances at the near post and preventing shots from getting through. Brooks came into his own at Hertha Berlin this season, and appears to be doing the same on the international level.
Finally, it appears that the US have a clear center back pairing. Years of Klinsmann tinkering yielded nothing in that department, but with Brooks and Geoff Cameron as the starters, they appear to have found what they've been looking for. The protection they have with Michael Bradley ahead of them doesn't hurt.
Bradley has found his niche as a defensive midfielder both with his club, Toronto FC, and with the national team. His ball-winning skills and tactical awareness are his biggest strengths, while his distribution is on world-class levels. It was on full display against Paraguay. He was able to prevent Los Guaranies from winning second balls in midfield—something they do a lot—and it was his positioning that allowed Jermaine Jones to range up the field.
The attack is looking as threatening as ever with the new 4-4-2 formation. Alejandro Bedoya is quietly effective down the wing, Clint Dempsey is playing well as a poaching false nine, and Bobby Wood has been playing as a center forward, easily his best position. Gyasi Zardes spreads the field in his role as a two-way winger, while Jones will sit around the box and do productive things from his center midfield role.
It's not a perfect system by any means—they could get overwhelmed at times in midfield, while Fabian Johnson is clearly not a left back despite Klinsmann's steadfast insistence on it—but it did the job against two solid opponents. The real reason they won, though, goes beyond tactics and lineups.
The work rates of all the players were huge for the US. They were constantly pressuring the ball, closing down players and preventing Paraguay from breaking the defensive lines. It was in the instructions from Klinsmann, apparently.
"These are the moments where you kind of tell your players, ‘Don’t be nervous about it," the manager told SI.com. "There’s no reason to be nervous. But understand that moment. So let’s go out there and just give everything you have."
Jones was all over the place, Zardes and Bedoya were up and down the flanks all day, and Bradley patrolled the middle with his usual stamina and work rate. There were times where the US made people forget that they were down to 10 men for much of the second half.
It wasn't always world-class soccer, but it was effective. They'll need more of it as the tournament goes on, even against Ecuador or Peru.