Copa America 2016: US national team - World Cup from the Copa crystal ball
What we learned about US national team's potential World Cup team composition from their performance in Copa America.
Klinsmann has come in for some flak for commenting that the US, particularly the media, are often hung up on results. We do subscribe to the (infamous) saying, “Of course, winning isn’t everything; it is the ONLY thing”. For all his grumbling, Klinsmann did stick his neck out and say that he would only consider reaching the semi-finals of Copa America 2016 as a success – a fairly bold challenge from a group where it wasn’t clear the US football team would win any of the football games.
The tournament began with an expected loss to highly rated (and overrated) Colombia. Although everyone was measuring out the rope to go around Klinsmann’s stuck out neck, I thought the US actually played well, had some good chances and lost to a set piece and a questionable penalty. In stark contrast to most games against highly ranked teams, the US weren’t defending desperately for the full 90. They had a fair amount of possession and they were fairly constructive.
The second game proved to be the turning point. However, much as the press cuttings didn’t quite tell the truth about the 2-0 loss, they were even more off the mark about the flattering 4-0 win over CONCACAF rivals Costa Rica. While the US looked good on offense and were uncharacteristically ruthless in their finishing, Costa Rica sliced through the US defense repeatedly like a hot knife through thin air – butter would have been a vast improvement. Monteiro, much he has done against defenses all over the world, terrorized down the left flank. Fortunately, they weren’t in the mood to finish their chances.
Perhaps the best game the US played was against Paraguay. They were completely dominant till Yedlin picked up two yellows in two minutes – a surprisingly stupid act from an experienced player. However, even 10 on 11, they actually looked like they would hold on to their 1-0 lead and so it proved to be. The solid play continued into the win against Ecuador. However, that was when they were struck by a very costly bout of yellow fever, not to mention another foolish red – Jones yielding to provocation and touching the face of an opponent.
The less said about the semifinal collapse against Argentina the better. With the best performer, Jones, out with a red and two other great performers, Bedoya and Wood out on yellows, Klinsmann still stayed true to form and put in Beckerman and Zusi. Yes, Argentina are in a different class, but that is no excuse to give the ball away when there is no pressure. Fortunately, Mexico’s 7-0 capitulation the previous day somewhat saved our blushes.
The US closed out with a better outing against Colombia, with the 1-0 loss coming against the count of good scoring chances. Klinsmann had his starting lineup back and it really made all the difference. Of course, given Colombia’s losses to Costa Rica and Chile, maybe they are overrated and we shouldn’t feel too flattered with our showing.
The tournament did show us a few things. Firstly, Klinsmann’s faith in the geriatric members of the squad was fully vindicated, at least among the starters. Jones was easily the best US player throughout the tournament, running about with the energy of a 20-year-old. That would make him 22 at the next World Cup, so what’s to complain? While Dempsey showed older, he also showed wiser, with a hand in almost every US goal in the tournament. Till someone else shows they can find the back of the net – well, I am just echoing what Klinsmann said at the outset --- it is up to the youngsters to displace the veterans. That is why he gets paid the big bucks.
There were some surprises this tournament. Let us start with the bad ones. Beckerman and Zusi, who were very good in Brazil, now seem too far off the pace to cut it at the next World Cup. Bradley, who had been superb in the last two World Cups, seems to have completely lost the plot since moving to MLS. You’d run out of fingers and toes trying to count the number of poor passes and giveaways by Bradley – in each game! Based on current form, I’d definitely vote him off the island.
On to the pleasant surprises. Brooks suddenly emerged as a tower of strength in the back line, something even Klinsmann noted. Cameron (full disclosure – we are both alums of the University of Rhode Island) has gone from good to better in the back line and showed he can be an end to end midfielder as well. Along with Besler as cover and Matt Miazga, who somehow wasn’t in the Copa team, there may be light at the end of the central defense tunnel. Yedlin and Fabian Johnson are solid starters at fullback, but there isn’t much depth, especially on the left.
While Jermain Jones somehow dipped into the fountain of youth, there were some other advances in the midfield. Bedoya has improved tremendously from his stint in France. Pulisic showed promise in the cameos he was permitted and I am talking Landon Donovan type promise. With two more years at Dortmund, we should be seeing much more of him.
Up front, Zardes’ pace definitely troubled all the defenses we faced. He has the potential to be a Coby Jones with the height and size to permit him to play centrally as well. However, that first touch has to improve – something Klinsmann could work on in LA. Dempsey seems to somehow rise to a different level playing for the US compared to any of his clubs and the nation is grateful, Clint! The revelation on the front line was Bobby Wood, with a combination of speed, ability to hold the ball and to get off a shot. Suddenly, Altidore is well and truly on the outside looking in. A good problem for Klinsmann to have.
My biggest regret is that Klinsmann never gave the youngsters a proper chance. Having achieved his goal of the semis, there were two opportunities for Klinsmann to learn how good his youngsters really are. With Wood, Bedoya and Jones out against Argentina, he could have given the Nagbe-Pulisic combination a start. Instead, we got Beckerman and Zusi and, to top it all, everyone played poorly. The second opportunity was in the usually meaningless third place game. That was a more difficult choice. Not only did Colombia put out their strongest team, but Klinsmann may have felt that a strong showing with his best guys back was essential to restore the team’s confidence after the drubbing by Argentina. With qualification for the CONCACAF hexagonal still not a done deal, I will give him that one.
On a side note, one of the fallouts from the Brexit fiasco – and I am referring to the one on the soccer field – is the rumor that England may be coming after Klinsmann to take over from the hapless Hodgson. With Arsene Wenger as another rumored successor, Brexit suddenly seems like a conspiracy against me!