U.S. doesn't capitalize on goal-scoring opportunities in defeat to Colombia
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Colombia defeated the U.S. 1-0 in the third-place game of the Copa America Centenario. Carlos Bacca's first-half goal proved to be the difference and forced the U.S. to settle for fourth place.
Here are three thoughts from the match.
1. U.S. looks better, but Colombia's cutting edge makes the difference
U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said he wanted to see some improvement since these two teams met in the group stage, when Los Cafeteros recorded a 2-0 victory. Certainly, when it came to the Americans' attack, the U.S. looked sharper and was more creative from the run of play.
But too often, the final killer pass -- or shot -- was missing, and a combination of last-ditch defending by Colombia and poor finishing meant the U.S. rarely tested Colombia keeper David Ospina.
Colombia's edge in this area was clear and the difference in the game. Los Cafeteros' attacking intentions were evident from the opening whistle. With Fabian Johnson and John Brooks not starting because of injuries (groin and knee inflammation respectively), Klinsmann was forced to mine deep into his defensive reserves, opting for Michael Orozco at left-back and Matt Besler at center-back.
Colombia continually sought to overload Orozco's side, with James Rodriguez linking up with Juan Cuadrado and Santiago Arias.
It was that trio of players who created Colombia's opener in the 31st minute. Cuadrado played the ball square to Rodriguez, whose perfectly weighted, looping pass found Arias in stride. Arias' header across the face of goal looked as though it were going in on its own, but Bacca made sure by getting the slightest of touches, and Colombia was 1-0 up.
Cuadrado later hit the post with an audacious chip, but Colombia was unable to add to its lead.
As was the case in the first encounter, set pieces proved to be a threatening avenue for the U.S., and Ospina delivered a fabulous save in the 51st minute, when he clawed away Clint Dempsey's free kick. As in the first encounter, the U.S. used that as a platform to up the pressure in the second half but again couldn't find a way through.
Bobby Wood had what looked to be a good chance in the 62nd minute, but he could hit only the post with his attempt. Dempsey fired wide from a good position in the 66th minute. The last good chance for the U.S. came in the 83rd minute, when Wood fanned on his attempt after good work from DeAndre Yedlin.
On a day when the U.S. hoped to finish in third place -- and collect an additional $500,000 in prize money -- it had to make do with fourth.
2. U.S takes away positives but disappointment too
The fourth-placed finish by the U.S. tied the 1995 squad for the best by the country at a Copa America. A team doesn't get to that point without carving out some decent results. The quarterfinal win over Ecuador was the best of the bunch, given the quality of that team's players and its current second-place standing in South American World Cup qualifying. But once again, against one of the top sides in the world, the U.S. came up short.
Ultimately, the U.S. will take away both positive memories and disappointment. The inability to make more headway against the likes of Colombia and in particular Argentina will stick in the memory, even though the U.S. looked more cohesive in Saturday's match.
But one could argue that purely in terms of this tournament, the scale tilts more in a positive direction. The defense looks more solid with the emergence of Brooks. Wood has all the makings of a highly effective forward. For all the jokes about Gyasi Zardes' touch, he put in some very effective performances in this tournament.
There are still questions about the midfield, but all told, this team looks better equipped to handle the ups and downs of World Cup qualifying than it did even a few months ago.
3. Why not play the reserves?
For all the talk about how third-place games don't mean anything, both teams made their intentions clear by fielding as close to full-strength lineups as possible. But it won't be long before the U.S. has bigger aims ahead, with World Cup qualifying resuming this September.
For that reason, Saturday's match feels like a missed opportunity in some ways, in that players such as Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic didn't see the field until less than 20 minutes remained.
Klinsmann explained his thinking at Friday's pregame news conference and said he felt that a bench role was all those two players could handle at the moment. He also expressed concern about fielding Pulisic against physical South American sides such as Colombia.
Even so, at some point, the U.S. will need to find some creative alternatives in midfield. Players such as Dempsey and Jermaine Jones will be forced to move on at some point.
Saturday seemed a perfect time to get some more information about what players such as Nagbe and Pulisic are capable of. Instead, the question of where the creativity will come from will have to wait.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.