US aim to end ‘underdog’ tag in Copa quarters

Seattle (AFP) – United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann wants his team to shed their “underdog” mentality as they prepare for a Copa America Centenario quarter-final showdown with Ecuador on Thursday.

Klinsmann’s side upset the form book by qualifying as winners of Group A, topping a pool that included World Cup quarter-finalists Colombia and Costa Rica and last year’s Copa America semi-finalists Paraguay.

It has left the Americans buoyed by confidence as they kick-off the knockout rounds against opponents they defeated 1-0 in a pre-tournament friendly just over three weeks ago. 

While Ecuador appear to be hitting form at the right time, with the likes of West Ham’s Enner Valencia and Manchester United namesake Antonio impressing in the group stage, Klinsmann wants to see the Americans adopt an aggressive approach at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. 

“What we’d love to see is that we are more confident and courageous against the big teams,” Klinsmann said after his team had sealed their place in the last eight with a battling 1-0 win over Paraguay. 

“Not just playing counter-break football. That we really go and push it higher up. The whole old story is the underdog story and I cannot hear that story any more. I want to see the guys risk things, let’s go for it.”

– Mental durability –

Klinsmann’s position as US coach has been the subject of ongoing speculation following a series of setbacks over the past 12 months, which included a disappointing semi-final exit at the Gold Cup and defeat to Mexico in a one-off playoff for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Even before the US’s must-win group match against Costa Rica, the head of the US Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati, briefed journalists about Klinsmann’s future, ominously declaring that “no-one has ironclad job security.”

Klinsmann’s team has mostly done its talking on the pitch, showing signs of increasing maturity by digging deep for the win over Paraguay on Saturday despite playing almost an entire half with only 10 men. 

That mental durability will be crucial in the knockout phase, Klinsmann believes. 

“This is do or die,” he said. “Knockout games are about the mental side of your game. You really have to be on top of yourself. You have to be ready to suffer. There will be moments when things go bad, maybe you concede a goal. 

“You’ve got to push through that and grind it out. I think the team did that against Paraguay and ground it out. We didn’t give anything away and that’s why we deserved to beat them.” 

One key to the US success has been the consistency of selection. 

For the first time in 80 years, the US fielded the same starting line-up for three consecutive games during the group phase. 

The foundation has been a back four comprised of Bundesliga-based Fabian Johnson and John Brooks, and English Premier League duo Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin.

Yedlin, sent off against Paraguay, is suspended on Thursday. 

“What we finally have had in this tournament is a big consistency in our back line,” Klinsmann said. 

“They’ve all gone through ups and downs over the past year and that’s totally normal. 

“But finally we have had a stretch of time where they’re all not only healthy but fit. I think the partnership between Geoff Cameron and John Brooks looks very, very good, it looks intimidating for the opponents.”

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