The United States Men’s National Team are just five days from beginning the biggest football extravaganza to touch these shores since the United States hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup. While it isn’t world football’s showpiece event, when the United States takes on Colombia to kick off the Copa America Centenario at Levi’s Stadium on Friday night they will be beginning a truly momentous occasion. This tournament, which has been in the works for years, and was nearly undone by the FIFA corruption scandal, is set to go ahead—and what a treat it will be for those of us privileged enough to watch.
Unique tournament, opportunity
Never before have the nations of North and South America come together like this to crown one champion of the Americas, and as we have been reminded time and again in the lead-up to Friday’s match, this is a one-off. While that isn’t certain, given the nature of money in football, what is certain is that the United States have not had a better chance to enthrall the American public in more than 20 years.
Make no bones about it, there have been plenty of moments over the last two decades when American Men’s soccer has been at the forefront of the nation’s collective consciousness. The legendary run to the World Cup Quarterfinals in 2002 will not soon be forgotten—dos a cero means it never will be—and Landon Donovan’s epic goal against Algeria will forever retain its rightful place in US Soccer folklore. The 2014 World Cup offered the American people something different because it was broadcast on national television at primetime, something which wasn’t the case when games were being played in South Africa, Germany, South Korea or France. However, it has been 22 years since an international tournament with the sort of worldwide star power to make anyone sit up and take notice took place in the United States.
The Americans are on the brink of taking advantage. Although 2015 brought little more than disappointment, they’ve left behind the frustration over their inability to defend their CONCACAF Gold Cup crown and failure to qualify for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. Though they’ve not made it look easy, they’re in very good position to move on to the Hexagonal and have won all three pre-tournament friendlies heading into the Copa. They’ve got a number of key players on their roster coming in off the best club seasons in their respective careers and have a young talent eager to show his class to the world. They’re ready to take advantage of this special opportunity.
Important this moment, and for the big picture
The story of the USMNT and US Soccer as a whole are intertwined when talking about this tournament. While the fiasco which was the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup is still being debated, at the moment it looks like the soonest this country could host a World Cup would be in 2026, if not 2030. This tournament is the next best thing. It is set to welcome a number of the top international sides and players in the world, and showcase them in 10 cities across the country. It offers the USMNT the opportunity to show the nation why they’re deserving of their love and attention at all times by putting on a show against the best the world has to offer. Though the reigning World Cup champions aren’t here, the losing finalists and one of the other semifinalists are. Four of the eight quarterfinalists in Brazil will be taking part in this tournament; half of the teams in this field advanced from the group stage in 2014. In the words of USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann, this tournament may be more competitive than the European Championship, which will be taking place at the same time.
What do the Americans face at the tournament?
However, it will not be easy for the Americans to take advantage of the incredible opportunity offered to them. They’ve been drawn alongside what pundits immediately christened as the tournament’s Group of Death alongside Colombia, ranked fourth in the world, Costa Rica, who were quarterfinalists in Brazil, and Paraguay, who knocked out Brazil on their way to a berth in the semifinals at last summer’s Copa America. Things are rarely easy for the USMNT, so it’s only natural that they have their most difficult outing in the first group match. Should the Americans fail to defeat Los Cafeteros at Levi’s Stadium, it will be essential for them to get a result against Costa Rica when they meet in Chicago on June 7th before they travel east to take on Paraguay in Philadelphia on the 11th. If they finish first or second in their group, they’ll advance. If not, then summer holidays will begin early for the players. Should the US finish first, they’ll have the honor of playing the second-place team in Group B, which consists of Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti and Peru in Seattle. Should the USMNT finish second, they get the winner of Group B in New York.
Pundits are divided on how far the USMNT can go. There is no doubt that the team has talent, talent enough for outspoken former National Team player Alexi Lalas to say that American fans should expect for their team to contend for the title. Others think they’ll struggle to emerge from the group. However, given the form they showed in the second half of their 1-0 friendly victory over Ecuador and their 4-0 thrashing of Bolivia this past week, things look promising. In Fabian Johnson and John Brooks, the US have two defenders coming off arguably their finest ever club seasons. Though both struggled with injuries, they were hugely impressive in the Bundesliga, and look to have developed a good partnership. Brooks, in particular, was impressive against Ecuador, making a late challenge to save a goal early on. On the other side of the defense, right back Deandre Yedlin looks a completely different player to the one who headed off to the English Premier League 18 months ago. After battling through a relegation scrap with Sunderland, he looks ready to take on the world and win.
Further up the pitch the picture becomes murkier. Although the ever-present Captain Fantastic Michael Bradley will undoubtedly find himself patrolling the center of the park, question marks abound as to who will partner him. In the tune-up friendlies, Klinsmann has favored a 4-3-3 formation, and Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are widely expected to pair the Toronto FC man against Colombia. Though both Jones and Beckerman have been in good club form, Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe has been an absolute game changer coming off the bench for the USMNT. After keying Portland’s charge to MLS Cup last winter, Nagbe has been rewarded by Klinsmann. He came on and completely changed the game against Ecuador and was one of the main reasons the Americans dominated the second period. His late winner was the reason they emerged with momentum. Meanwhile, Alejandro Bedoya was superb for Nantes through the second half of the French domestic season and had two assists during the Bolivia win. Few can agree on which three ought to be operating in the center of the park come June 3rd.
The Pulisic conundrum
The questions don’t stop there; rather, they continue all the way up to the top of the pitch, and center around whether or not 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Christian Pulisic should be starting. Since breaking through with the Dortmund first team this year, he has earned three caps, all off the bench. He was hugely impressive as a substitute against Ecuador and scored his first goal for the national team against Bolivia after a great ball from Nagbe. However, in the Ecuador and Bolivia matches, both Gyasi Zardes and Clint Dempsey started up top. In the Bolivia match, they were joined by Bobby Wood, who had a fantastic club season in Germany. Though Zardes has occasionally struggled to impress for the USMNT, he hit a brace against Bolivia, and Wood was a constant threat throughout. With Dempsey unlikely to surrender a starting spot, the question is whether Pulisic has done enough to start over Zardes over Wood. Though many think he should, few expect him to.
On the bench, a number of Klinsmann regulars are present. Graham Zusi, Chris Wondolowski and Matt Besler are all there, among others. There were few surprises besides the decision to include Wondolowski over young Seattle Sounders striker Jordan Morris. Apart from that, the only names one would expect to see there that aren’t are Jozy Altidore and Timmy Chandler, who only miss out due to injury. There is depth and talent on this bench; if Nagbe and Pulisic wind up not starting, they can act as spark plugs coming on late, much like Deandre Yedlin did in the 2014 World Cup. Matt Besler and Steve Birnbaum can spell John Brooks and Geoff Cameron if the need arises. In Bradley, Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya and Nagbe, the Americans have one of the deepest central midfields in the entire tournament. All that’s left now is to see just how far they can go.