Klinsmann's Job Could Be On Line As Americans Face Paraguay Saturday In Group A Finale

By Sean Hartnett
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USA heads into Saturday’s Group A finale controlling its own destiny. A win over Paraguay would get the Americans into the Copa America quarterfinals. Tuesday’s 4-0 rout of Costa Rica puts the Americans in good position to advance.

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If the United States draws against Paraguay, a Costa Rica draw or loss against Colombia would push USA into the knockout stage. Another advancing scenario for the Americans would be a draw against Paraguay, and Costa Rica defeating Colombia by five goals or less.

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A loss to Paraguay would eliminate the U.S. and probably end Jurgen Klinsmann’s five-year spell as national team head coach. On Tuesday, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati refused to guarantee Klinsmann’s job security. It would be hard to see him surviving the embarrassment of a group-stage elimination at the hands of Paraguay.

Something to watch for Saturday is the legs of veterans Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey. Saturday would mark their third game played in three different time zones over the span of eight days. Dempsey played 78 minutes Tuesday, while Jones played the entire 90. Carefully managing the freshness of aging stars is vital in tournaments in which games come fast and furious.

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If the U.S. jumps out to a sizable first-half lead, Klinsmann would be wise to give the duo a quick hook in the second half. Jones put in an exemplary box-to-box performance against Costa Rica. The United States will need him to be fresh as the tournament goes on. At 34, it’s difficult to ask Jones to constantly run the length of the entire pitch for the full 90 when matches are packed in tightly and come in varying altitudes.

Fortunately, Klinsmann could call on Darlington Nagbe to spell Jones. The influential 25-year-old midfielder has only been afforded 24 minutes of game action at Copa America, replacing Jones during USA’s 2-0 defeat to Colombia. Nagbe is wonderfully composed in possession and excels at running at opposing defenses.

A recurring theme throughout the tournament is Klinsmann’s lack of faith in Nagbe and highly touted 17-year-old Christian Pulisic. Renowned for his ability to take on defenders and unpredictable shiftiness, Pulisic could serve as an impact sub if the U.S. is in need of goals and creativity in the second half.

Keep in mind, Paraguay knocked out Brazil at last summer’s tournament in the quarterfinal. Paraguay is a difficult team to break down and can launch lethal counterattacks. The U.S. will also have to be aware of the threat of striker Dario Lezcano in set-piece situations. There cannot be a repeat of the shabby marking exhibited in the Colombia defeat.

USA and Paraguay kickoff at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. It will be 90 minutes that could define Klinsmann’s tenure at U.S. national team boss.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey