Here’s how USMNT’s outlook changed dramatically in one night

CHICAGO — The United States’ Copa America Centenario dreams are still alive. They might even be well, thanks to a 4-0 thrashing of Costa Rica, and all of a sudden, it looks like the Americans might have something going.

It’s incredible how much can change in 90 minutes. The U.S. might as well have been a different team, far from the one that lost its opener to Colombia, 2-0. But the Americans weren’t really that much better against Costa Rica than they were against Colombia.

The biggest difference in the two matches had nothing to do with the U.S. It was their opposition.

It seems cheap to put the focus on the other team, but it’s impossible to ignore just how much better Colombia are compared to Costa Rica. And that’s especially true when the Ticos are missing superstar goalkeeper Keylor Navas. It’s also not a knock on the Americans’ performance against them.

The U.S. weren’t that bad against Colombia. The final product wasn’t always exciting, but there were reasons for optimism.

Manager Jurgen Klinsmann put his team in a position to be aggressive and play the proactive style he’s long wanted. They went for it, only to struggle with a lack of creativity, some finishing and a very good opponent.

Against Costa Rica, they still had creativity problems. They spent much of the first half with the ball in the attacking third, but didn’t have many great chances to speak of. Their good moves forward often were thwarted by missed passes or, on two occasions, sloppy finishes by Gyasi Zardes. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to what they did in their previous match, and that goes for what went well, too.

Their work at the back — after a shaky first eight minutes —€“ and through the midfield was excellent. John Brooks put in another dominant performance, with Costa Rica rarely getting a look at goal. The extra space through the middle was easier to exploit than it was against Colombia, a product of quality of opponent and style of play, but the U.S. were able to play in the attacking half for a second straight match.

The U.S. were aggressive and willing to get forward. They were proactive. Again.

The difference was they were handed an early penalty thanks to a silly push in the box by the Ticos. That goal by Clint Dempsey completely changed the match, and it was entirely different from their last match, when they conceded early. They also got some spectacular finishing, with Jermaine Jones and Bobby Woods’ shots both expertly slotted home. Even the Americans’ final goal was Graham Zusi picking the pocket of a Costa Rica defender and finding the back of the net from 18 yards. Toss in some luck, like Dempsey stumbling the ball right into Jones’ feet for an assist, and a Costa Rica team that wasn’t nearly as good as Colombia, and you have how a 2-0 loss can become a 4-0 win.

"Here and there, we maybe didn’t play as well as we did against Colombia, but we scored goals," Klinsmann said after the match.

Klinsmann started the same lineup that he did against Colombia and, at the time, it wasn’t a popular decision. Most everyone had spent days talking about what he had to change and when the starting lineup came out, it was hard to find a person defending his decision. But he believed in what the team flashed against Colombia, knowing that a weaker opposition and a bit of improvement could change the result. He was right.

As is usually the case, the bad wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed and the good isn’t quite as good as you want it to be. The U.S. showed signs of figuring things out against Colombia, but were undone by an early goal that turned the match and a very good opponent. Against Costa Rica, they were largely the same team, but with a bit of fortune and playing a side that wasn’t nearly as good.

The U.S. still aren’t clicking. Wood is still unnatural on the wing and Zardes’ touch is problematic at best. The passing and inability to turn constant touches in the final third into constant chances has to get better. But the way they’re defending, driving the ball through the middle of the pitch and winning the transition game is promising.

Now the Americans head into their final match of the group stage knowing that a win will put them in the quarterfinals, and a draw almost undoubtedly will get the job done too. The way they are playing, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Paraguay, like Costa Rica, aren’t nearly as good as Colombia, and the U.S. can win the match in defense and in the midfield, creativity be damned. And as Klinsmann says every tournament, the first goal is just to get out of the group. From there, anything can happen.