Jurgen Klinsmann wins those must-win games, but can the U.S. do it again?
SEATTLE, Wash. -- What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, in a conference room inside the charming old Chicago mansion that serves as the U.S. Soccer Federation's headquarters, USSF president Sunil Gulati sat in a blue leather chair lamenting the state of the men's national team program under coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
The results had not been good enough -- not even close to good enough -- for the better part of two years, he said, and especially in the games that mattered the most.
Gulati deflected when asked if failure to survive the first round of the Copa America Centenario might cost Klinsmann his job. But listening to what he did say, namely the declaration that "we need to win games," really made it sound as if Klinsmann was staring into the proverbial abyss.
Now, not only has Klinsmann won two games that would have eliminated the hosts from the tournament had he lost either of them, but the victories over Costa Rica and Paraguay combined with the former's upset of Colombia meant that the U.S. won Group A against all the odds.
Now, the U.S. is just 90 minutes away from reaching Klinsmann's stated goal of a semifinal berth, with only a tough yet beatable Ecuador side standing in their way in Thursday's quarterfinal match at CenturyLink Field.
This swift change in fortunes is classic Klinsmann. The German manager always seems to pull a rabbit out of his hat at the very moment he appears out of tricks, but Saturday's magic act in Philadelphia may have been his greatest escape yet.
Even after beating Costa Rica mere hours after Gulati spoke, Klinsmann's future seemed to hinge on the Paraguay match. Had he lost it, the first-round exit combined with the other failures over the past 18 months might well have been enough to force Gulati's hand, especially with the Americans' next game nearly three months away. But needing only a tie the U.S. won again, and relatively easily considering that they played almost the entire second half down a man.
Klinsmann said afterward that his players deserved the three points, and he was right. Here's the thing, though: Klinsmann deserved those two wins too.
There has long been a perception that when this U.S. team has performed well, it has done so in spite of the coach, not because of him. There might even be some truth to that. After all, the players play the games. But the truth is also that in both the Costa Rica and Paraguay matches, Klinsmann made subtle tactical adjustments that ended up having an impact on the outcome.
Against the Ticos, Klinsmann pulled forward Gyasi Zardes back into the midfield toward the end of the first half, shifting to a 4-4-2 formation from a 4-3-3. The move immediately resulted in Bobby Wood's goal that made the score 3-0 and effectively put the game out of reach.
In the Paraguay game, he swapped Zardes and Alejandro Bedoya on the wings so the speedy Zardes could match up against 36-year-old full-back, Paulo da Silva. "They knew I could beat that guy in a footrace," Zardes said of the U.S. coaching staff.
The way his team responded in the two games reflects well on Klinsmann; it must be pointed out that his .700 winning percentage in competitive matches is higher than any previous U.S. coach. And these gutsy wins seem to have eased the pressure and significantly increased the chances that Klinsmann will see out his contract through the 2018 World Cup in Russia whatever the outcome against Ecuador.
Yet there's still a lot riding on Thursday's match. A win would further flip the script by offering near-total vindication for Klinsmann, who was quite rightly skewered by the media for his refusal to credit Colombia for obviously being the better team in the disappointing, Copa-opening loss to Los Cafeteros.
A loss would feel like a huge missed opportunity, even if the inclusion of Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia make this Ecuador team a far more dangerous one than the version the Americans beat in their penultimate pre-tournament friendly.
It could go either way.
"This is a big-time game," Klinsmann told the Seattle Sounders website on Monday after arriving in town. "Knockout games in big soccer tournaments like a World Cup, like a Copa America, are nerve-wracking games."
Klinsmann added that the large, pro-U.S. crowd expected in the city that supports its MLS team in larger numbers than any other will give his team a valuable home-field advantage. He also cautioned that the margins between success and failure are slim.
"We are hungry," Klinsmann continued. "It's down to your belief, it's down to your willingness to suffer, to go really through pain. This is what the players will go through on Thursday night. So if the fans are behind us, and help us go through that pain, we're going to make it."
They might just. Who would have believed that a week ago?
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.