Geoff Cameron: Jurgen Klinsmann's motivational skills inspire victory
HOUSTON -- United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann's motivational skills helped the Copa America Centenario hosts rebound from a tournament-opening loss to reach the semifinals, according to U.S. defender Geoff Cameron.
The Americans lost their June 3 curtain-raiser to 2-0 Colombia, but ended up winning Group A after beating Costa Rica and Paraguay to close out the first round. The U.S. then defeated Ecuador on Thursday in Seattle, setting up a meeting with Argentina in Tuesday's semi at the NRG Stadium in Houston. Argentina overcame Venezuela 4-1 on Saturday night in its quarterfinal in Boston.
Losing the first group-stage game is often a bad omen for teams in major competitions; at the last five World Cups, 90 percent of opening match losers failed to advance. But Cameron said Klinsmann helped keep his team's spirits high after the disappointing start.
"He's a big motivator," Cameron said on Saturday before the U.S. learned of their semifinal opponent.
"I think it's special that with all the people that doubted us and all the people who didn't think we could make it this far, he brought the group together, kind of blocked the negativity and stayed positive on the inside."
Klinsmann targeted a berth in Copa's final four before the event began. But that seemed like a lofty aim to many considering the national team's struggles in the 18 months following the 2014 World Cup, where the Americans advanced from a difficult group that included eventual champion Germany before being eliminated by Belgium in the round of 16.
The pressure on Klinsmann -- who took home a $3.2 million in 2014, making him one of the highest-paid managers in the sport -- seemed to reach a high just hours before the Costa Rica match, when U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told reporters in Chicago that the Americans "need[ed] to win a few games."
The U.S. thumped Los Ticos 4-0 at Soldier Field that evening before defeating the Paraguayans -- despite playing almost the entire second half with 10 men following DeAndre Yedlin's red card.
In both matches, Klinsmann -- whose tactical acumen has been questioned in the past both by U.S. players and those with Germany's national team, which Klinsmann coached from 2004-06 -- made key in-game decisions that impacted the result.
In the first half against Costa Rica, he switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2, preventing his full-back from being overrun.
Versus Paraguay, he switched Gyasi Zardes from the right wing to the left to match Zardes' fleet feet against 36-year-old defender Paulo da Silva. Minutes later, Zardes beat Da Silva to the end line and assisted on Clint Dempsey's game-winning goal.
"A lot of people wrote us off after the first game," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "Our backs were against the wall."
Argentina will prove their greatest test yet. FIFA's No. 1 team boasts five-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi, who made his first Copa start on Saturday after recovering from a rib injury.
Messi scored his fourth goal of the tournament and added two assists against Venezuela. Still, U.S. has the advantage of playing at home plus two extra days to recover.
"Any time you get more rest," Yedlin said, "It helps."
As a player, Klinsmann helped West Germany beat Argentina in the 1990 World Cup final, and he will hope to inspire his current team past the Albiceleste.
"We seem to rise to the occasion," Cameron said. "Hopefully we have another gear in us."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.