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USA has been in must-win matches before, but facing Uruguay is ‘very different’

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USA has been in must-win matches before, but facing Uruguay is ‘very different’

ATLANTA — Even before Uruguay routed hapless Bolivia 5-0 in Thursday’s Copa América nightcap, the math was pretty clear for the United States. Following the 10-man Americans’ stunning loss to Concacaf rival Panama in their second Group C game, the U.S. players already knew that Monday’s first-round finale in Kansas City against Uruguay (9 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) amounts to a must-win.

The task is as clear as it is daunting. Led by Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde and Liverpool striker Darwin Núñez, La Celeste — the 15-time South American champions, tied with Argentina as the most all-time — will present a significant challenge for the USMNT.

As deflating as Thursday’s defeat was — coming in front of a raucous home crowd of almost 60,000 mostly pro-U.S. fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — they knew they had to turn the page immediately.

“I feel lucky to go into games like that, so I’m excited for it,” said captain and star Christian Pulisic, who scored an early goal in the host nation’s 2-0, Copa-opening win over the Bolivians last week, and who thought he’d helped set up teammate Weston McKennie for another Thursday night only for the video assistant referee to rule McKennie’s strike offside.

“We have to go and play the best game of our lives and that’s it. We want to go and we want to win. We want to continue in this competition.”

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Ever since being rehired as the USMNT’s coach following a knockout stage loss to the Netherlands at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Gregg Berhalter and his team have spoken openly and often about the next step this so-called “Golden Generation” of young Americans must take at the highest level. Specifically, the stated aim has been to prove that it can win a knockout game against elite competition. Sure, the U.S. has beaten regional rivals like Canada and Mexico in Concacaf’s Nations League over the past four years. Eliminating a bona fide global power like the Dutch or Uruguay is another matter.

Monday’s contest in front of what is expected to be another large and partisan audience at Arrowhead Stadium isn’t technically a knockout game. As a practical matter, however, that’s exactly what it is. At least for the home side, if not for the visitors.

“It’s a knockout game a round early,” U.S. veteran Tim Ream said flatly on Thursday night.

“If we want to go far in this tournament, we have to beat teams like Uruguay anyway,” added fellow center back Chris Richards. “It’s just another chance for us to show why we deserve to be in the next round.”

“It’s a final,” said attacking midfielder Gio Reyna, who might be asked to move to his old spot on the right wing in place of Tim Weah, who is suspended after picking up that game- and tournament-changing straight red card just 18 minutes into the Panama match.  “We have to win and get three points.”

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Fortunately for the USMNT, most of them have been in this position before. Eighteen members of Berhalter’s 26-man Copa América roster were also on his roster at the last World Cup, where the U.S. also went into its last group stage match needing to win to advance or go home.

They qualified for the Round of 16 then with a cagey 1-0 over Iran, an experience that could help them on Monday.

“I think it’s a good experience to draw on,” said Ream, who played all 90 minutes that night in Qatar. “We can look back on that and look at the effort we put into that one to get a result and move on and go through. It’s something that we can definitely use to our advantage come the game against Uruguay.”

“I think we’ll probably look at that game as kind of a replica of what we’re gonna face going into the last game of this one,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “You can take a lot from that game.”

Still, there are some obvious differences. “Very different opponent,” Ream said with a knowing look. Iran was ranked 20th by FIFA at the time. Uruguay is currently No. 15, four spots behind the Americans. But FIFA’s ranking is notoriously nonsensical. The reality that Ream was silently acknowledging is that La Celeste is the far more dangerous opponent. After Argentina and Brazil, the Uruguayans are the trophy favorites at this tournament.

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“Obviously, Uruguay is a very, very good team,” Adams said. “I know how intense that game is gonna be.”

On the other hand, the Americans were effectively the visiting team against Iran in Doha, which is just 700 miles from Tehran. As a result, the overwhelming majority of fans in attendance at Al Thumama Stadium were backing Team Melli.

This time, the U.S. can count on a true home-field advantage in the cavernous home of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

“We’ll prepare, and we’ll go out there and try to have a great performance against Uruguay and get the result we need in front of a great crowd in Kansas City,” Berhalter said.

Another factor that could favor the U.S. is that with two multiple-goal wins from its first two games, Uruguay has already booked its spot in the quarterfinals. La Celeste manager Marcelo Bielsa could choose to rest regulars like Núñez and Valverde to keep them fresh for a likely date with either Brazil or Colombia. Bielsa’s trying to win the tournament. He’s probably not going to throw caution to the wind against the hosts. Portuguese boss Roberto Martinez employed a similar strategy earlier this week in his team’s last group match of Euro 2024 against Georgia, and Portugal lost 2-0. They are still among the favorites in Germany.

Panama STUNS United States: Can USA bounce back?

The USMNT’s players obviously don’t have the luxury of thinking about that. All their focus must be on defeating the foe in front of them.

“It’s Uruguay, so their bench players are really high-level also,” Reyna said.  “If they do rotate, or if they keep their starting main team, we can’t approach it any different.”

This much is clear: the Americans need to produce a Herculean performance if they intend to advance and avoid a disastrous first round exit on home soil less than two years before the U.S. co-hosts the 2026 World Cup.

“We’re know we’re gonna need to be at our best, but at the end of the day, we can compete when we have 11 players on the field,” Adams said. “It’s gonna be a completely different game. But it’s going to be intensity from the first minute of the game. But we’re going to need quality as well. There’s going to need to be some big moments in that game.

“We’re already turning the page,” he added. “There’s going to be frustration from that [Panama] game. We can’t be sitting here making excuses. We’re not that kind of team. We can’t be that kind of team. I think when you let that start to creep into your mindset, then you’re set up for failure.

“It is a good feeling knowing you have to go into a game and win it.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports who has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at FIFA World Cups on five continents. Follow him at @ByDougMcIntyre.


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