Paraguay’s Nelson Valdez takes on teammate Clint Dempsey in pivotal Copa America Centenario group-stage finale.
Nelson Valdez feared this day would come from the moment his native Paraguay was drawn into the same Copa America Centenario group as the United States.
Sounders teammate and USMNT veteran Brad Evans started the locker-room smack talk almost immediately. Privately, though, Valdez hoped both sides would somehow clinch quarterfinal berths before facing off in the group-stage finale.
Colombia laid waste to those dreams on opening night, cruising past the USMNT in Santa Clara before surviving a Paraguayan scare a few days later.
And so it is with an air of inevitability that their collision course finally comes to a head on Saturday night in Philadelphia, Clint Dempsey’s USMNT and Valdez’s Paraguay playing for a single knockout-round berth.
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The U.S. needs only a draw to advance, allowing for the safe assumption that Costa Rica doesn’t put six past the Colombians later on Saturday. Paraguay needs nothing less than victory, but though it enters the weekend with just a single point from two matches, it could be a formidable out.
Valdez admitted before the Copa that this would likely be his final act on the international stage, and he’s not the only one.
Goalkeeper Justo Villar, at 38, and 36-year-old center back Paulo da Silva have racked up more than 250 caps between them. They all fueled an unexpected run to last year’s Copa America semifinals. They’re unlikely to go quietly into the beckoning light of retirement, even as a lower-ranked team playing on the road.
There would be something Shakespearean about Valdez netting the goal that knocks out the United States. His Sounders tenure has been cursed by injury and defined by his Designated Player status almost from the beginning. Valdez is well liked both by teammates and coaches, but there’s a sense of foreboding — salary and production numbers no longer adding up — that would only be underlined by a fateful strike on Saturday.
The USMNT, meanwhile, boasts as cohesive a defensive line as it has in years.
Unlucky handball in the opener aside, former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin has developed into a two-way force at right back. Fabian Johnson is playing out of his club position on the other side but might be the most complete player on the team. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks have been solid in the center.
The midfield could certainly use a dash of Darlington Nagbe’s creativity, but the current trio of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya has a well-worn understanding.
In attack, the USMNT is a close relative of this year’s Sounders, Dempsey connecting the bloodlines.
As he has most often done with Seattle, Dempsey occupies the center forward position in a 4-3-3 formation. He floats between lines and in and out of matches, delivers often enough in big games to silence his doubters. His penalty-kick goal against Costa Rica was his 50th with the national team, second-most all-time.
The problem is the knock-on effect of playing Dempsey in the middle. Just as Jordan Morris and Valdez have struggled on the wing with the Sounders, neither Gyasi Zardes nor Bobby Wood is a natural fit out wide.
Watching the U.S. in this tournament, even in its deceptively dominant 4-0 rout of the Costa Ricans, has felt like re-experiencing Seattle’s struggles to adapt to its new formation.
Some mean-spirited and enterprising YouTube user compiled a blooper real of all of Zardes’ clumsy touches in the first two matches. And while selective cuts can make even the best of players look inept, the video did hit what this U.S. squad still lacks: Fluency, chemistry, passes that aren’t misplaced directly into opposing attacks.
As the lopsided Costa Rica win when facing elimination showed, though, the USMNT has a tendency to rise to the occasion with backs against the wall. On the other side could await a very-beatable Brazil, or an even-more-beatable Ecuador.
U.S.-Paraguay is finally here, and the stakes are as high as Valdez initially worried they’d be.