Oh-ho-ho. How the fortunes have turned for a little known national team called the United States of America. After the first game of the host country's group play, things were looking pretty dire. A 2-0 loss to Colombia seemed like an early nail in the coffin for the Red, White, and Blue with two difficult teams the likes of Paraguay and 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists Costa Rica ahead. But a surprising 4-0 drubbing of Costa Rica on Tuesday and another win against Paraguay last night—in combination with Costa Rica's shocking win over Colombia—proved a magical series of circumstances to put the US on top of their group.
In the 27' of USA vs. Paraguay, Gyasi Zardes shockingly handled his first touch along the left flank (he's known to mess these up) and shook two defenders with a deft stutter-step, allowing him to send in a low back-cutting pass to an open Clint Dempsey for his 51st national team goal, tucking the ball neatly between the legs of his defender and under the armpit of the Paraguayan keeper. It would later be the eventual game winner.
But only if the storyline were so clean as the US calmly riding out Dempsey's early goal with some casual offensive possession for the victory. But that wouldn't be the case as right back DeAndre Yedlin picked up two yellow cards within the same minute—early, early in the second half—sending him off for both the rest of the game. A pretty stupid, risky series of tackles that left the US with only 10 men on the field, and without Yedlin for their next game.
The US ground out the win with only 10 men—but only thanks to an extremely impressive (and rare) defensive showcase—particularly from John Brooks. While his center back partner and Stoke City man Geoff Cameron had a solid night with six clearances, three pass picks, and a tackle, it was the Hertha Berlin center back who held down a spectacular series of play to keep the US afloat.
The following tackle from Brooks occurred in the 10th minute of the game, but was exemplary of the kind of heroics the man was up to last night after they went down a man:
You could almost call that 3 vs 1 tackle—after a series of defensive mishaps caught the US outnumbered (where was Cameron on this play?)—the equivalent of a goal. It basically saved them one—and the momentum of the game. (And based on how John Brooks bafflingly reacts to scoring goals, his celebration afterward makes it seem like he recognized just how skillful it was.)
Brooks later picked up Man of the Match—and deservedly so. (#JayB indeed.)
But the US would be remiss to owe their group-topping success solely to their skill against Paraguay. Fate gave them a downhill wind that put Costa Rica up ahead in a thrilling match against clear favorites (and No 3 team, per FIFA rankings), Colombia.
The first of Costa Rica's goals sent a message early to Colombia—in the 2'—that they were not to be messed with. Johan Venegas found himself with very little space off his defender, which he used for a tight pivot to send the ball curling into the side netting from well outside the 18-yard box. Maybe the goal of Copa America so far (ok, fine there's that Messi guy too).
Colombia came back with a goal off of some pretty sloppy defending from Costa Rica, which saw Frank Fabra dribbling through several players, and getting a tight little give-and-go only five minutes after Costa Rica's goal.
But the real swing of momentum, perhaps, came as Fabra scored again—this time an own goal on the other end of the field. He was tracking his man, when a Costa Rican cross landed plainly at his feet, which he clumsily fumbled into the goal.
Celso Borges claimed yet another goal for Costa Rica—this time, actually scored by a Costa Rican player. A beautiful cross with a well-timed one-time strike:
Colombia came back with another goal in the 73', but ultimately, it proved futile, as Costa Rica's special blend of luck and spices kept the Cafeteros at bay.
For the uninitiated, a win chalks up three points in group play, a tie (like that between Paraguay and Costa Rica last week) earns one point, and goal differential counts in a tie, so the US's 4-0 victory over Costa Rica on Tuesday was the lynch pin in their claim to the top spot in the group—over a very strong Colombian side.
Group A, final:
Group B, pre-third games:
US's placement at the top of the group gives them an advantage against Group B (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Haiti), as they take on their second place team in Seattle on Thursday. It's still possible for the US to play world-beaters Brazil, but predictions say it's likely to be Peru or Ecuador. A Brazil vs. Colombia match would certainly be thrilling. But perhaps not as much as a clearer path to the semifinals, which the USMNT hard-earned last night.