The United States men's national team clinched a spot in the Copa America Centenario Quarterfinals on Saturday night in Philadelphia with a 1-0 win vs. Paraguay. A good result begat good fortune later, as Costa Rica upset Colombia, handing first place in Group A to the U.S. A matchup with the Group B 2nd place finisher awaits on Thursday night in Seattle. Here's what we learned:
John Brooks is everything we've ever wanted in a center back
The man of the match on Saturday night, without reservation or hesitation, was Mr. John Anthony Brooks. In one of the greatest performances we've ever seen from an American center back, Brooks was every superlative you could conjure. He was steady throughout and spectacular when needed, which was the case on more than one occasion.
The most memorable, without a doubt, occurred in the 10th minute of play. Brooks' stop of a 3-1 on Paraguay counterattack was the stuff of legend. It was the type of play on which you expect a goal to be scored. Brooks closed it down, allowed Fabian Johnson time to get back to provide some cover in the middle, and made a heroic sliding tackle to deny even a shot on goal. It was a major turning point that set the stage for Clint Dempsey's 27th minute goal.
Brooks' growth and continued maturity over the past year has been a revelation. He was a key cog for Hertha Berlin last season, and his late season injury can be pointed to as a major reason why Hertha collapsed and failed to qualify for UEFA Champions League. Now obviously at full strength, Brooks' play has reached a new level. Last night he looked every bit like a force that will occupy the U.S. back line for the next decade or more.
...And they were all yellow
If there's one significant area of concern heading into the Quarterfinals, it's the looming threat of yellow card accumulation. In Copa America, any player receiving two yellow cards throughout the Group Stage and Quarterfinals is suspended for the following game. While those totals reset after the Quarterfinals, there is a long list of U.S. players at risk of missing a potential Semifinal.
The immediate issue at hand will be Thursday night's absence of DeAndre Yedlin. The American starting right back earned two yellow cards in less than a minute at the start of the second half vs. Paraguay. It was a brief but very damaging disciplinary lapse that now costs him a chance to play an important game in his hometown of Seattle. Meanwhile, Jürgen Klinsmann must make a decision about how to replace him in the lineup. The most likely choice is Michael Orozco, who came on in relief following Yedlin's dismissal. Other options require more tinkering with a back four unit that has played quite effectively together.
But it'll be tricky to navigate the next match without an additional suspension hurting the U.S. Seven players carry a yellow card into the Quarterfinals: Alejandro Bedoya, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Michael Orozco, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Bobby Wood. Cards to Wood and Bradley were especially frustrating to watch, as they were received for a push after the whistle and for dissent, respectively. The U.S. showed signs of losing composure in key moments vs. Paraguay, but held it together enough to see out the result. The lingering danger of that lack of discipline coming back to haunt the team later in tournament, however, still remains.
You may now officially dare to dream
If you can truthfully claim that you expected the United States to win Group A, stand up and take a bow.
Now sit back down again, because you're lying.
The U.S., with a little help from Los Ticos, finds itself in a very favorable position heading into the Knockout Round. While the next opponent is still to be determined, the Americans will now likely be favored to reach the Semifinals. A quarterfinal matchup in Seattle, with a strongly pro-U.S. crowd behind it, facing (probably) Ecuador, is excessively more appealing than the prospect of facing Brazil in metro New York.
Klinsmann's stated goal of reaching the Semifinals now seems very plausibly within reach. Taking nothing for granted, of course... but beyond that, a tantalizing semifinal matchup vs. Argentina in Houston looms. And hey, wouldn't that be a pile of fun?
Still, no one expects the United States to reach the Final, much less win the tournament. But after the events of the past 24 hours, you could be forgiven for dreaming, even just a little.