The United States men’ soccer team enters Saturday night's group-stage finale against Paraguay at Copa América Centenario with its destiny in its hands, and at its feet.
Win and the U.S. (1-1-0, 3 points after two matches) punches its ticket to the quarterfinals for only the second time in its sporadic Copa América appearances.
Draw and the Americans probably get to play another day, because Costa Rica (0-1-1) would need to defeat group leader Colombia (2-0-0) – which is assured of advancing – by at least six goals in their match later that evening.
Lose and either Paraguay (0-1-1) or Costa Rica will go through, with Team USA embarrassed as the very first host eliminated in the opening round since 1987, when the tournament’s format changed. (Before that, matches were played during the course of the year in the participating countries, without a host nation.)
But the ever-optimistic Jürgen Klinsmann hardly is thinking such nasty thoughts. The U.S. coach believes his side will find a way to reach the knockout round.
"These are the moments you tell your players, 'Listen, don't be nervous about it. There's no reason to be nervous,'" he told reporters.
He went on, "Saturday night is a game in which you expect the guys to go out there and give everything they have. If they do that, they bought into this whole process. It's going to be a very exciting game. So you better make sure to fill it up."
Klinsmann surprised observers by deploying the same starting lineup in its 4-0 triumph over Costa Rica Tuesday night as he did in the team’s 2-0 defeat to Colombia in the opener last Friday.
The results were night and day.
Then again, so were the opponents. Colombia is the third-ranked team in the world according to FIFA, while the Ticos are 23rd.
As for Paraguay (ranked No. 44), Klinsmann wasn't about to tip his hand on who might start, but the importance of the match is obvious.
"This is already a knockout game," Klinsmann said.
Thanks to its 4-0 drubbing of Costa Rica, the USA appears to be in the drivers' seat even if they finished the group stage deadlocked. The Americans have a plus-two goal differential.
Paraguay is at minus-one, Costa Rica at minus-four.
"We are not playing for one point. We cannot do that," Klinsmann said. "It is not our character to go for one. We go for the win, or otherwise we might punish ourselves there."
The Americans punished themselves plenty in 2015, and we are reminded what a difference a year makes.
The last time the U.S. national team played in southeastern Pennsylvania, its hopes already had been buried.
Team USA had been stunned by Jamaica in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and then had to play a rather meaningless third-place match with Panama in Chester, Pa. They followed up one lackluster performance with another that ended in a shootout loss to Panama.
It was part of a down period for the national team as it lost out on a spot at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia by losing 3-2 to Mexico in October.
Team USA has rebounded a bit, putting itself in a decent position to advance to the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but it still has plenty to prove.
Reaching the quarterfinals of Copa América would be a start. Paraguay stands in the way.
"[Paraguay] is a very unpredictable team," Klinsmann said. "This is a team that has individual players that can hurt you in a split second."
The U.S. coach used Colombia's 2-1 win over Paraguay on Tuesday as an example, when Victor Ayala brought La Albirroja to within one in the 71st minute.
"Colombia's experienced," Klinsmann said. "They thought the job was almost done – and vroom! – they score that goal. If they don't go down to 10 men, they were right on the verge to equalize. They're fearless. That's their nature. But I think we're very well prepared, and we are definitely capable of beating them."
If not, Klinsmann will be on the hot seat yet again.
After the loss to Colombia, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told reporters that the coach’s performance will be assessed after the tournament.
“Results of the last 18 months overall haven’t been what we would have hoped for,” Gulati said. “We had some good results last spring that were friendlies. We had some wins coming into this event, but it’s the official competitions that matter the most, and we haven’t been up to where we would like to be.”
Gulati added, “We will look at everything after this competition. I don’t get too high or too low based on one game, especially in this tournament against a very good team [Colombia]. So we will wait and see how the next two games go.”
Klinsmann spoke to the media Thursday at Rhodes Stadium, home of the University of Pennsylvania’s soccer team, and when asked about the pressure on him, he gave a minute-long answer.
"Every time we talk about pressure, you talk about expectations that come along with your role, with your job," he said. "Being [at] the helm of an amazing program that you badly want to move forward and get better and get everybody happy about it. Critics are part of that process. Let people say their own words and express their own feelings. It's totally fine.”
The former German star went on, "I'm focused on developing a team, getting the younger players [ready] ... hopefully bridge these four years towards the World Cup the best way possible, [so] that we are stronger next time to get further than just the Round of 16."
Beyond the pressure, Klinsmann was sure of at least one other thing about the Paraguay match. "It's going to be a nail-biter," he said. "It's going to go down to the wire."