It’s no secret that the U.S. have been drawn into the toughest group of the Copa America Centenario, with the Yanks set to kick off the tournament this Friday against Colombia, who at the moment are ranked 4th in the world. As was the case in 2014, multiple news outlets have written the Americans off, their chances being described as miniscule; and in fairness, if this U.S. team looked exactly as it did in October of last year, that would be a fair assessment. Almost 9 months ago, the U.S. looked much like a side that were imploding, crashing out of the 2015 Gold Cup, and losing 5 of their last 6 games at home. One of those losses included a 3-2 loss to archrival Mexico in the Confederations Cup Playoff, which marked a new low for the U.S. under highly-criticized coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
That being said, this does not feel like the same US team. Sure, 7 of those players were on the field when the U.S. looked listless in a 1-0 home loss to Costa Rica, but there have been plenty of changes (and not just to personnel) that provide reasons to believe the U.S. are going to do well on Friday and going forward.
The stars have aligned?
Fans have been scratching their heads regarding Klinsmann’s formation selections and player placement for some time now. When Alejandro Bedoya was pulled from the U.S.’s 4-1 home loss to Brazil only 36 minutes in, he claimed that was his first time playing the defensive midfielder role as a professional. In the same game, Michael Bradley was pushed into a more advanced attacking role, and Deandre Yedlin was playing on the wing. Let’s just say things looked disjointed, and that’s not the first time fans cringed at the sight of a US lineup.
Since then, Klinsmann has traded the role of Dr. Frankenstein for Dr. Feelgood: If you put players in their more natural and comfortable positions, things work out better collectively. One of Jurgen’s biggest battles throughout his tenure has been using players that fit the system vs. having the best players on the field. Perhaps two friendlies aren’t a definitive proving ground, but it does at least appear as if Klinsmann is figuring that out.
Michael Bradley has played a deeper role over the last 2 games, looking much more comfortable winning balls and starting attacks from the deep/middle third; a similar role to the one he plays in Toronto. In contrast, Bedoya has looked more like the success he has been at FC Nantes and Helsingborgs IF before that, playing centrally farther up the field. He has been accompanied by Jermaine Jones, who has seen (yet another) renaissance of his own in an attacking role since he joined the Colorado Rapids at the onset of the MLS season. Deandre Yedlin meanwhile has grown his defensive game significantly while on loan to Sunderland in the English Premier League, and looks to be the best option at right back moving forward.
Still, questions remain on whether Klinsmann will stay the course and choose pragmatism over mad science. Many U.S. fans and journalists alike consider Fabian Johnson to be playing out of position at left back, as he is more comfortable on the wing, where he stars for his club Borussia Mönchengladbach. Even more so, fans are terrified of seeing another lineup that consists of Bradley, Beckerman, and Jones, with fears of the trio being out-hustled and overwhelmed pace-wise by the likes of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, however, feels differently:
“Sometimes, it depends on the opponents. If the opponents come with a 10, a real playmaker that needs to be tightly marked, then you have an option with Kyle Beckerman where Kyle is going at that guy,” he said. “It really depends on every game situation, but it’s a good option to have.”
What lineup he chooses to go on June 3rd against Colombia remains to be seen, but one hopes Jurgen Klinsmann will stick with what has worked recently.
Think about this every time you hear that Klinsmann doesn’t have enough talent: This US team has depth in spades. The U.S. have trotted out a 4-3-3 in the last 3 games that has fielded 2 of their best 3 strikers on the wing, and have had players like 17 year old starlet Christian Pulisic and attacking midfielder Darlington Nagbe coming off the bench as substitutes! This is a luxury the US have not had in some time. There is virtually a suitable replacement for every single starter on the field, and that will be important as they approach a 3 game s in 9 days group stage at the Copa.
Experience vs. Youth
While many questioned Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave Jordan Morris at home and instead take San Jose Earthquakes Forward Chris Wondolowski, that does not mean there is a lack of youth on this team. Bobby Wood, Perry Kitchen, Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Darlington Nagbe, and Gyasi Zardes are all 25 and under, and can help this squad significantly. Out of that group, only John Brooks received time on the field in Brazil 2 years ago, so the element of changing the guard has also reflected gradually in Jurgen’s selection over time. Each player can use this tournament as another platform to demonstrate how they and the technical director will continue to transform the team heading into the next World Cup.
The young players have also changed the team chemistry in terms of competition. Veterans such as Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, and Alejandro Bedoya have all come to terms with the fact that their positions are not guaranteed anymore, and have raised their game since last year. The intensity of the competition for spots has been as high as it has ever been during this world cup cycle, and it has made the team better overall. It appears that for the first time in his tenure, Klinsmann has a strong mixture of youth and experience, another reason to feel confident of a result heading into the Copa this Friday.
Home Field Advantage
Writers, critics, and naysayers have quickly overlooked the fact that the U.S. are playing an international tournament at home. Sure, Mexico will be a bigger draw, but this is America; while last year was not the most successful for the U.S., they weren’t the only strong footballing country to struggle (How’s the Netherlands looking for the Euro?) and this tournament affords an underdog United States the chance to demonstrate 2015 was more anomalous than predictive.
Generally speaking, the United States performs well at home. Further, while Gold Cups are nice, this is the first massive opportunity as a home nation for the U.S. since 1994. The players sense that. They’ll be excited and feed off that energy. And while Colombia typically travel well, Costa Rica and Paraguay won’t dominate the supporters sections in Chicago and Philadelphia.
Most of all, remember the US have always performed better as an underdog, when expectations are minimal. The US have a better shot at advancing out of their group and making a lengthy run than most believe. Only time will tell if the hosts can seize the moment.
Andrew Diaz is a contributor to The Yanks Are Coming. He is a founder of American Outlaws- Gainesville in Florida and a journalist.