Soccer

Klinsmann, Dempsey quiet critics (for now) as U.S. team heads to Copa semifinals

Clint Dempsey heads the ball during the second half of Thursday’s 2-1 victory for the United States over Ecuador in a Copa America match at CenturyLink Field.
Clint Dempsey heads the ball during the second half of Thursday’s 2-1 victory for the United States over Ecuador in a Copa America match at CenturyLink Field. AP

So, do you still think Jurgen Klinsmann should be fired? Still think Clint Dempsey is past his prime?

Nah, didn’t think so.

If the scene at Fritz and Franz Bierhaus in Coral Gables on Thursday night was any barometer of the mood surrounding the U.S. national team, many of the critics have been silenced (at least for now) with the Americans’ performance thus far in the Copa America Centenario.

It’s hard to complain when your team just advanced to the semifinals of one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments after winning three games in a row by a combined score of 7-1.

Fans leaped from their seats, high-fived and chanted “U-S-A!” in the pub after Dempsey’s brilliant header goal gave the U.S. team a 1-0 lead over Ecuador in the Copa quarterfinal. They erupted again when Gyasi Zardes tapped in the game winner with an assist from Dempsey, who showed that at 33 he can still deliver when it matters most.

Dempsey had been left off Klinsmann’s roster for a few games during the winter but the coach was wise to bring him back. He has four games in the Copa so far and is tied for the Golden Boot with Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Philippe Coutinho.

“Clint is special and he showed that tonight. He showed that the last couple weeks, he showed that throughout his entire career,” Klinsmann said after the win over Ecuador. “So when he was not there [in camp] a couple times, we wanted to bring some youngsters and give them a go, but he’s right there where he should be. This performance tonight from him was unbelievable.”

Dempsey has scored 52 goals for the national team — second-most in U.S. history and five away from matching Landon Donovan’s record.

Klinsmann had been criticized for his seemingly never-ending lineup experiments; but he kept the same starters through three Copa matches. DeAndre Yedlin was suspended and unavailable for the Ecuador game, so Klinsmann put in steady veteran Matt Besler at left back and moved Fabian Johnson to right back. That proved to be a good solution.

He also made a smart move by pairing Bobby Wood with Dempsey. Wood had a fabulous season in the German second division, scoring a U.S. record 17 goals, and is headed to top-division Hamburg next season. During the Copa, Wood has been in constant motion, aggressive, decisive, and keeping opposing defenders busy, allowing Dempsey to roam more freely near the goal.

Moving Michael Bradley back to his more defensive midfield position also seems to be working. Klinsmann has some tough decisions to make heading into the semifinal because the U.S. team will be missing three suspended starters — Wood, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya. Jones was shown a red card in the Ecuador match, and Wood and Bedoya each received their second yellows.

Barring a complete collapse Tuesday night in the semifinal in Houston, Klinsmann and his team will have accomplished what they set out to do in this special edition of the Copa America — gain respect and get critics off their backs.

▪ Allez! Allez! Allez! Three cheers for Wales, Iceland and Poland — all of which started strong in the European Championships. There were some purists who complained about the field being expanded from 16 teams to 24, but it has been fun to have some underdogs to make things interesting.

In its first major competition since 1958, Wales beat Slovakia 2-1 in the opener and was on the verge of tying England 1-1 before Daniel Sturridge broke Welsh hearts by scoring the stoppage-time winning goal.

Iceland, a nation of 330,000 people that had never played in the Euro championships, managed to tie Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal team. Best of all, 8 percent of Iceland’s population was in the stadium for the match.

Finally, give it up for Poland, which kept World Cup champion Germany to a 0-0 tie. Any team with Robert Lewandowski has to be considered dangerous.

▪ Off the hook: England coach Roy Hodgson ought to give Jamie Vardy and Sturridge a portion of his weekly paycheck. Or at least take them out to dinner. Hodgson was on the hot seat because of his choice of substitutions in the opening tie against Russia, but against Wales he put Vardy and Sturrudge in during the second half, and both scored.

▪ Disgraceful fans: Shame on the hooligans from Russia and Croatia, who have soiled an otherwise wonderful Euro 2016.

Police in France are on high alert and UEFA is ready to kick Russia out if there is any more violence from Russian fans. Several hundred Russian fans attacked English fans at their game in Marseille last weekend. It is particularly troubling because Russia is hosting the 2018 World Cup.

Equally disturbing was what happened during Friday’s match between Croatia and the Czech Republic in St. Etienne. The match was halted as fans in the Croatian section of the stadium threw eight flares and another explosive device onto the field, nearly hitting a field marshal and players. Croatia was leading 2-1 at the time. The match ended in a 2-2 tie, and tournament officials are investigating and expected to hand down punishment. It won’t be the first time Croatia is penalized for its fans’ behavior. They had to play two qualifying matches behind closed doors after Croatian fans mowed a swastika into the field before a match against Italy.

Who’s leading

MLS: East — Philadelphia (23), New York City FC (21), N.Y. Red Bulls and Montreal (19). West — Colorado and Dallas (28), Real Salt Lake (23), Vancouver and L.A. (21).

NWSL: Portland (17), Chicago and West N.Y. (15), Washington (14), Orlando (12).

On the tube

Sunday: Switzerland vs. France (2:30 p.m., ESPN), Romania vs. Albania (2:30 p.m., ESPN2), K.C. vs. Dallas (5 p.m., ESPN), N.Y. Red Bulls vs. Seattle (7:30 p.m., FS1).

Monday: Slovakia vs. England (3 p.m., ESPN), Russia vs. Wales (3 p.m., ESPN2).

Tuesday: Germany vs. N. Ireland (noon, ESPN), Ukraine vs. Poland (noon, ESPN2), Croatia vs. Spain (3 p.m., ESPN), Czech Republic vs. Turkey (3 p.m., ESPN2), U.S. vs. Argentina or Venezuela (9 p.m., FS1).

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