CHICAGO — As long as he has been coaching the U.S. national team, Jurgen Klinsmann has been known as a man who likes to tinker with his lineups.
Not since the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, against Ghana, had the U.S. trotted out the exact same lineup as the previous match. In that instance the Americans were coming off a convincing 2-0 victory against Nigeria.
The U.S. wasn't coming in off the high of a victory when it took the field against Costa Rica on Tuesday, but rather a 2-0 loss to Colombia. Jurgen Klinsmann insisted that his team had played well that day and matched the highly-rated Colombians, save for a pair of defensive mistakes.
That sounded a lot like spin at the time, but when Klinsmann trotted out the same lineup on Tuesday night against Costa Rica, he showed that he did believe his team had played well, and could be even better against the Ticos. It seemed like a gamble, but his players made it pay off in impressive fashion.
The Americans pressured Costa Rica into mistakes, capitalized on chances in a way they weren't able to against Colombia, and closed out the match with a shutout despite Costa Rica dominating possession and finding chances in the second half.
Klinsmann's men showed much more energy on Tuesday, as cooler temperatures here in the Windy City made for a much better environment for the U.S. to press a Costa Rica side that looked frazzled in the first half.
Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez was defiant in the post-match press conference, insisting that while the U.S. was efficient in finishing chances, he felt his Ticos were the better team from the run of play. The notion seemed a bit delirious considering the 4-0 scoreline, even if final stats gave Costa Rica clear edges in possession, passing accuracy and total passes.
The U.S. scored early and often on Tuesday, and carried a 3-0 lead into halftime before letting Costa Rica carry the play in the second half.
The Americans aren't likely to care much about losing in the style points department. That earned them nothing against Colombia, and Tuesday provided a reminder that it's much better to score goals than to earn moral victories.
Here are some takeaways from the U.S. win in Chicago:
Several players were criticized after the loss to Colombia – perhaps none more than Jermaine Jones, who simply didn't have much of an impact in the Copa America opener. There were calls for him to be benched, in part to allow Klinsmann to play some youngsters, but the U.S. coach stuck by the veteran German-American and Jones showed why he still belongs in the lineup, playing his best national team match since the 2014 World Cup.
"Some players really stepped it up, Jermaine was one of them today, putting his stamp on this game," Klinsmann said of Jones, who was named Man of the Match. "He kind of gave the message with Michael in the midfield that this is our game."
Jones thrived in the 4-3-3 at the start, covering ground and helping limit what Costa Rica could do through the midfield, but he looked even more imposing once the U.S. switched to the 4-4-2. He surged forward, delivering passes and taking shots, one of which resulted in the goal that made the score 2-0.
"Today I knew that a big tournament could be over if we lose that game, so I tried to do my best for the team," Jones said. "My quality, to get that freedom to go forward, to go back. Today was a completely different one than what we had with Colombia, so I went out there and tried to enjoy it."
Jones was an imposing presence defensively, and dangerous in the attack. His production on both fronts was considerably better than it was against Colombia. Consider his defensive contributions consisted of zero tackles won and just three recoveries last Friday, where on Tuesday he produced five tackles won and nine recoveries. That increased production played a big part in helping the U.S. post the shutout, and keep control of the game.
Clint Dempsey may be one of the oldest players on the U.S. team, but for the second straight match he made the case for being the most influential attacking player on the roster. Just four days after coming close on multiple occasions against Colombia, the Sounders star converted a penalty kick and had a hand in the other two U.S. goals scored in the first half.
"Obviously just getting the ball in those pockets and being in position where you can run at the back line and cause problems," Dempsey said. "I thought in the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 I was able to do that in the first half. In the second half it’s a little bit different of a game. They went three in the back, they were pushing for a goal, they were high pressing. They had more possession. In the first half we looked real good."
Dempsey appeared to have much more support in the attack on Tuesday night than he did against Colombia, when he often looked like a one-man show trying to single-handedly break down Colombia's defense. The U.S. counterattack was flowing well with Fabian Johnson surging down the left flank, Jones commanding the midfield and Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes creating space with their runs forward. The improved overall team movement helped Dempsey put an even bigger stamp on Tuesday's win.
"I thought I was jelling with a lot of guys out there," Dempsey said. "Bobby makes good runs. I was able to find him and he was able to get a goal. I was able to find Jermaine, also Gyasi, who was unlucky not to get one. I just think there’s a good relationship with everybody on the team."
Jurgen Klinsmann's biggest decision heading into Saturday's group finale against Paraguay may not be which players to start, but which system to deploy.
The Americans looked good in both the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 on Tuesday night, scoring goals in both systems and looking comfortable in both as well.
Truth be told, the Americans may have looked even better in the 4-4-2, though they were also playing that system while holding a multi-goal lead, and ceded the possession edge during that time.
For Klinsmann the 4-4-2 showed well, but may not be the best option if the Americans advance past the group stage and the opposition gets tougher.
"The 4-4-2, it depends, as we discussed before, it depends on our opponents as well," Klinsmann said. "We don't have the luxury to just stand with everyone here. No. We need to modify things too according to who we play against.
"I think the 4-3-3 worked perfectly with Colombia," Klinsmann said. "Today we saw we struggled kind of two against one or three against two situations on the wings because they had a shift extremely because of their 3-5-2. We expected that a little bit, and then we made the switch after half an hour and said it's probably easier to make all of the shifting work in a line of four with four in midfield. It worked perfectly. We communicated with Michael and Jermaine in the middle, they took care of that side."
As far as the U.S. players were concerned, both formations worked well.
"We already got the goals (when we switched to the 4-4-2)," Dempsey said. "We needed to stay compact defensively, we needed to be difficult to break down, we needed to keep a clean sheet, and to provide that width because they were getting the ball behind us on the sides. I think it gave us more numbers centrally and gave us more width. I thought we played well in both formations."
So which lineup are we likely to see against Paraguay? Because Colombia's win over Paraguay on Tuesday night means the U.S. can advance to the knockout rounds with a draw against Paraguay, then a 4-4-2 may be the best approach, especially against a Paraguay team that heads into Saturday's match needing a win.