Clint Dempsey’s wile for USA in Copa America depicts old dudes do it best

The forward was at the peak of his powers against Costa Rica and little of what built the US so impressive would have been possible without him

What a glorious thing pressure is. In the working day following their limp opening day loss to Colombia, in which they assured a lot of the ball and did nothing with it, it might have been easy for the USs players to succumb to the gloom engulfing all discussion of football in this country. Losing to Colombia caused all the annoyances associated with five years of halting advance under Jrgen Klinsmann to come suppurating out: the big off-field promises, the meagre on-field outcomes, the enervating Jrgenvness all hand-waving and hoping for the best of the coach-and-four management of a playing group of inconsistent quality. The football-supporting public was at breaking point.

But succumb the team did not. Just the opposite, in fact: with their tournament on the line, their coach-and-four in danger of “losing ones” task, their very identity as a squad in question, the embarrassment of exiting a tournament on home clay in the first round looming, anxiety over the quality of the next generation of playing talent at a pitch, the public angry and impatient at the enduring stasis of “the member states national” squad, and the future of the sport in America, seemingly, in the balance, the US mens national squad thrived. They delivered the various kinds of quick-witted, counter-punching performance that has been often pledged, and seldom delivered, during Klinsmanns reign. If this is what this team can do with their backs to the wall, it may be wise to keep the wall within reach.

This was a performance that mixed the best of US footballs traditional combativeness with a new set of qualities: mobility, clever movement off the ball, width, and lethal finishing. This victory was built on more than only lumping the ball forward and hoping for the best; it wasnt about big men crashing through or wearing the foe down through superior physicality. There was genuine craft and guile to the teams play, the goals, and the style they were constructed. Old Soccer, meet New Football.

There had been considerable clamor for Klinsmann to change his starting lineup from the 11 players who had labored through the torpor of the opening match. Klinsmann dismissed the crowd and stuck to his sentences, convinced as he was that the US had in fact played well against Colombia the two objectives confessed aside. Does Jrgen know? On the evidence presented by last night, he does because this was a victory built on the contributions of those most under pressure following the loss on Friday.

There were impressive showings from Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, but this was a victory, above all, for the teams veteran wing: if last night proves anything, its that in the US mens national team, the old dudes are definitively back. Michael Bradley, whos merely 28 but has been an established presence in the national squad for a decade, was less influential in this game than he had been against Colombia, but thats a good thing, because his influence on Friday had been almost totally negative. Here Bradley tidied up his defensive game and offered small glimmers of quality moving forward: his raking, 50 -yard cross-field pass in the buildup to Woods goal, in particular, was a thing of no small beauty. 29 -year-old Alejandro Bedoya brought an elastic enthusiasm to the wing that had been almost completely absent in the constrict, slog, possession-for-possessions-sake display the US midfield gave against Colombia. At his best the Nantes winger, bulge-eyed and scurry-footed in his darts down the flank, reminds me of a particularly well-paid marmot.

Graham Zusi put the icing on the cake for the US on Tuesday, with the teams fourth aim. Photo: Mike Dinovo/ USA Today Sports

Mainly, though, it was Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey at 34 and 33, both by now authentic geriatrics who the most emphatic rebuttal to the teams many boo sons. From Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open to latter Three-Peat Michael Jordan, Late Federer or better still Late Pirlo, the sight of old guys scaling the athletic heightsprovides sport with one of its most instantly engaging narrations.

Jones and Dempsey have a route to go before they join that august company, but on the evidence presented by Tuesday night, theyre well on the way. A chopstick in the spokes of any forward movement from Los Ticos midfield, Jones hustled energetically from box to box all night, sniping and swarming and harassing and haranguing with all the energy of an airport cabbie in a country with lax taxi regulations. He capped his display with a precise, first-time finish for the second goal, but it says everything that he generated the opportunity, basically, himself, via some determined pressing when Costa Rica had the ball and a lung-busting run to provide support in the final third. Never has a middle-aged human in dreadlocks performed better on a football field.

Dempsey, meanwhile, seemed liberated by the early penalty and made some of his best moments in a US shirt throughout the first half. The former Fulham superstar has never been an out-and-out striker; even during his salad days he operated more often as a hybrid forward-playmaker, an all-purpose creator-in-chief with the license to wander across the front line and into the space behind. Klinsmanns plan, we can assume, was to use him in a similar way. Against Colombia, this failed spectacularly. Dempseys creative spirit was shackled by the leadenness and ineptitude of those around him; eventually he was left with little alternative but to try his luck from distance. Last night, by contrast, he finally had a willing subsistence cast out of midfield to enable his passing artistry to flourish. And flourish it did, with thrilling efficiency.

Earlier in his career Dempsey had the neat hair, easy skills and sunny charm of a southern matinee idol. The Texan drawl and the buzzcut endure, but now theres a darkness to the veteran front man, an edge of cynicism perhaps: the eyes sink deeper, his face is more gaunt and lined, and he stands over every dead ball, watchful and still, as if meditating on some dark conspiracy. In many respects he is the closest thing this US team has to a character off Game of Thrones a master schemer plotting from the darkness. Here he was at the peak of his powers, and little of what made this such a complete performance from the US the pressing, the lightning counter-attacks, the ball rotation, the snappy combination plays would have been possible without him. If Bradley is the US teams heart, Dempsey is its brain.

A word of caution, and a trite one at that: this victory alone does not solve everything that ails the US national squad. Klinsmanns substitutes and formation changes continue to baffle. Individual mistakes expensed the team on Friday, but their simple inverse individual grandeur won the day against Costa Rica. This was a victory in the mode Klinsmann likes: a victory for individual virtuosity rather than tactics or the collective scheme. Depending on veterans to elude the years and recapture the zest of old is not, in any event, a viable tactical strategy in the long run or even, truly, or the remainder of the Copa.

Besides, sharper finishing from Los Ticos might have made things a little edgier in the opening stages of the second half. Costa Rica demand respect: theyre a squad with two top assaulting talents Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell and they dedicated a more than respectable account of themselves in Brazil two years ago. But they were also, lets not forget, comfortably outplayed in their first game in this tournament, against Paraguay the final scoreline notwithstanding. Los Guaranes will present a sterner test than Los Ticos did last night.

If the US can recapture this form on Saturday, they will advance from different groups comfortably. But consistency has traditionally been the great weakness of this team, which is perhaps why it always seems either on the verge of hopelessnes or bound for glory. If the USs results too often get hurled into the various kinds of reductive filter that deprives analysis of any subtlety Jrgen bad! Jrgen good! Jones past it! Jones world-class! thats because the results and performances of the team under Klinsmann have themselves been similarly helter-skelter. Which US team will we insure at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday: the team that dawdles on the ball, gets caught in possession and appears clueless in the final one-third, or the team from Tuesday night? Its impossible to predict, but in the meantime, the teams veterans like their maligned coach-and-four can drink long on the satisfaction that their obsolescence, long declared and much greeted, has not dawned just yet. This puppy do, in fact, hunt.

Read more: