The United States Men’s National Team will open the Copa America Centenario—a wonderfully entertaining Frankentournament that the U.S. is hosting only through sheer force of corruption—with a match against Colombia tonight in Santa Clara, Calif. Colombia is the shit. They could have taken down Brazil at the last World Cup, and they have a roster full of technically-gifted players strewn across the Champions League and Europe. Los Cafeteros are ranked No. 4 in the world for good reason, and they brought an A-team to the United States.
Despite avoiding Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, the U.S. still managed to land in the hardest group of the tournament. Neither Costa Rica nor Paraguay are killers, but there aren’t any gimmes in this group. The U.S. could, and arguably should advance, but a swift exit wouldn’t be terribly surprising. The United States’ record has been uneven in the past few competitive tournaments, but there’s been a consistent strain of conservatism that’s infected their play in both the World Cup and the Gold Cup. They got outplayed and outshot in every game in Brazil and even managed to look lackadaisical at the Gold Cup against inferior competition. Not to get too technical here, but if the USMNT doesn’t switch it up, Colombia is going to destroy them. Maybe they can escape the group by playing the same incoherent brand of soccer that got them through the Group of Death in 2014, but if we are truly to Do This, trotting out the same strategy is no way to live.
It’s been two years since the World Cup, and Jürgen Klinsmann is only now just starting to seriously tinker with changes to a system that relies on Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones controlling the midfield, while Kyle Beckerman provides cover and Clint Dempsey links the two cavaliering center mids up with some sort of blockish striker (usually Jozy Altidore). The USMNT has changed up their lineup and formation between competitive games, but when it really mattered, Klinsmann has consistently rolled out the same setup. It’s led to a historically bad run of form for the U.S., but if recent friendlies are any indication, he’s heading in a different direction.
Center midfield is still the United States’ biggest advantage, but moving Michael Bradley back to a pure defensive midfield role and sticking Darlington Nagbe alongside him makes the U.S. a more dangerous, flexible team. Unlike Jermaine Jones, Nagbe and Bradley have positional discipline and play soccer as a team game. Colombia is a lightning-quick team, and Kyle Beckerman can’t keep up with them, but both Nagbe and Bradley track back as a matter of principle and both offer more going forward. Nagbe is a crucial puzzle piece that, by his talent anyway, should stop the Klinsmann trend of pushing everyone up a position (Dempsey to striker, Bradley to attacking midfielders, Geoff Cameron to d-mid). Nagbe’s new to the program and he only has seven caps, but he’s too good to sit. If Klinsmann sits him for chemistry’s sake, the USMNT are sunk.
Jozy Altidore is a nice player who’s struggled with inopportune injuries, but his Copa absence opens up chances for Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, both of whom are fast and instinctive. Neither is the rugged back-to-goal scorer that Altidore is, and honestly, that’s fine for this team. They’re not going to beat Colombia or anyone else holding the ball up and chilling. They don’t have the control or technical skill to complete long strings of passes in and around the 18-yard box. Zardes doesn’t have much of a first touch, but he’s smart and fast, and Wood knows what he’s doing as well. Altidore’s absence almost assures that Dempsey will get some serious time, but faster guys ahead of him is better than post-up strikers. Much like Bradley, Dempsey’s passing abilities are more fully realized when there are runners ahead of him.
Speaking of runners, Yung Christian Pulisic, the wonderteen, is going to make an impact on this tournament. Unlike Julian Green in 2014 or Freddy Adu ever, he has already proven he belongs at the highest level of club soccer. Caution is essential when considering the immediate contributions a 17-year-old child can make, but that said, Pulisic appears to be the truth.
Should he start? Probably, but Klinsmann doesn’t trust young players, and that gets to the heart of the conundrum facing the team. The USMNT needs to integrate their young dudes (not just Pulisic and Nagbe; John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin need to be playing), but Klinsmann has a habit of reflexively reaching for his core group of veterans when he needs to get a win. Here’s a thing Klinsmann told the Wall Street Journal yesterday:
“That talent is not there yet when it comes to the national team, when it gets to big tournaments, when it gets serious. Whatever path they took the last two years, we’ve got to make it clear to them you’ve got to do more. You’ve got to live differently, got to sleep differently, feed yourself differently. You’ve got to train longer, train extra sessions. You’ve got to become physically stronger, got to be nastier in training sessions. You’ve got to become a man.”
That’s not an encouraging answer for the Cult Of Pulisic, but you’d think at this point, after the shit that the old dogs took at the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Cup, Klinsmann realizes that the United States needs to adapt or they’ll blow their shot to make the only Copa America the country will ever host mean something. There are arguments to be made for keeping the team intact and playing solemn, concerned soccer against a better opponent, but fuck that. The U.S. can’t play to not lose. This isn’t to say they should come out and try to get 70 percent possession on Colombia, but as scary as change is, Jürgen Klinsmann needs to embrace the raw talent on his team or this tournament is going to end up a failure, and a boring one at that.