U.S. humbled vs. Colombia, but Jurgen Klinsmann stays defiant
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Something about walking into a postgame news conference causes Jurgen Klinsmann to transport himself to an alternate reality.
As the questions kept coming, Klinsmann insisted that the U.S. played well in a 2-0 loss to Colombia to open the Copa America Centenario. One of his first comments made that clear. "We were absolutely OK with the team performance. Obviously we got punished for two set pieces in the first half and then against such a quality team, it's very difficult."
He concluded the news conference by saying, "There was no difference [between the two sides] besides the two goals."
Colombia was in control from the moment that Cristian Zapata slammed Edwin Cardona's corner kick past U.S. keeper Brad Guzan with the game not yet eight minutes old. This was true whether the visitors -- who, it must be said, enjoyed considerable crowd support -- had the ball or not. And as a reminder to Klinsmann, set-piece goals count just as much as those that come courtesy of a 25-pass buildup. They simply can't be dismissed out of hand.
In fact, in some ways Zapata's goal was worth more than the solitary point that Colombia earned on the scoreboard. From that moment on, Los Cafeteros were able to dictate terms. The U.S. may have finished the first half with 60.7 percent of possession, but it struggled to create much of anything in the way of clear chances. And let's not forget the fact that the second set piece was a 42nd-minute penalty converted by James Rodriguez after DeAndre Yedlin was whistled for a handball in the box.
It was a sequence that was largely self-inflicted as well, as a sloppy touch from Michael Bradley saw him cede possession in his own half. After Rodriguez's goal, all that was left was for Colombia to manage the game and look for opportunities on the break.
If Klinsmann's comments sound familiar, it's because he has used set pieces as an out before, most notably in the semifinals of last year's Gold Cup when Jamaica scored off a throw-in and a free kick on the way to a 2-1 upset of the U.S. at the Georgia Dome.
Granted, in some ways Klinsmann was in a no-win situation after this game. When he has publically criticized players in the past, he has been accused of "throwing them under the bus." There are still two winnable games left in this group stage against Costa Rica and Paraguay, so now is the time to try and manufacture confidence. And Klinsmann wasn't alone in his assessment either, as Geoff Cameron and Clint Dempsey were largely positive in their view of the U.S. performance.
But in Klinsmann's case, there comes a point when trotting out the same tired excuse of set pieces starts to ring awfully hollow. If the U.S. keeps getting beat via set pieces in important tournaments, perhaps its time to address the obvious frailties in the box. And it's no good trying to build up your team's self-belief if no one buys what you're saying. His comments need to be grounded in reality.
Now, was the U.S. response good after Colombia's first goal? Without question. The U.S. didn't cave in or look completely overmatched. That was a point of emphasis in the comments by Cameron and Dempsey. But that isn't the same as playing Colombia on level terms. What the U.S. lacked was the precision necessary to unpick the Colombia defense.
"We weren't quite sharp enough or quite quick enough to be able to take some little advantages, or some half chances and really punish them," Bradley said. "And obviously, on the night they were ruthless in terms of their ability to know what the game was going to need and close space and make things very difficult. Then take chances when they can."
The Colombia attack also had a higher gear into which it could shift. The U.S. didn't, which explains why Jose Pekerman's side was content to sit back and protect its lead.
It means the state of the U.S. offense is a big concern going forward heading into the Costa Rica match, though just how much of one is difficult to gauge. Colombia is ranked No. 3 in the world for a reason. The talent they possess is immense. For all of its recent accomplishments at the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica isn't in Colombia's class and the U.S. may well have more success against a familiar foe.
So Klinsmann has a tricky decision to make in terms of his lineup. Does he keep the faith with the players that started against Colombia? Or does he revert to the 4-4-2 with which he finished Friday's game? Such choices will determine whether the U.S. goes deep into the tournament or experiences the sobering reality of an early exit.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.