USMNT: Five things to watch in the Copa
This story originally appeared in ESPN The Magazine's June 6 World Football Issue. Subscribe today!
June's Copa America Centenario will serve as a high-stakes midterm exam for the USMNT. Slotted halfway between World Cups, the tourney against the Americas' best will reveal lots about where the U.S. squad -- and controversial coach Jurgen Klinsmann -- stand two years shy of Russia 2018. It's been a tough 12 months for the Americans, as the U.S. finished a disappointing fourth at last summer's Gold Cup, failed to qualify for the Confederations Cup and, most shockingly of all, lost 2-0 to 95th ranked Guatemala in March -- a loss that temporarily put it in danger of not qualifying for Russia '18.
Klinsmann and the U.S. desperately need a strong showing on home soil in the Copa but were drawn into a very tough Group A alongside Colombia (fourth in FIFA rankings), Costa Rica (25th in FIFA rankings) and Paraguay (39th in FIFA rankings). The tournament could also be a swan song for mainstays like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones before they step aside for the next generation. There are subplots all over the field -- here's what to watch for when the whistle blows on June 3.
Copa half full?
As a seeded team, the U.S. avoided title faves Argentina and Brazil in the group stage but open the tournament against Colombia, FIFA's fourth-ranked team. Los Cafeteros' main man is Real Madrid midfielder James Rodriguez, whose 16 shots (two goals) are tied for third in South American World Cup qualifying, despite Rodriguez missing two of Colombia's six games.
The Yanks' second opponent is CONCACAF rival Costa Rica, which reached the quarterfinal of the 2014 World Cup and currently sits atop its 2018 World Cup qualifying group after four matches. Costa Rica is never an easy out but was dealt a major blow last month when star goalkeeper Keylor Navas was ruled out for the tournament with an Achilles injury. Navas is a big miss for the Ticos, but Costa Rica has won two straight meetings against the US and boast dangerous attacking players led by Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell.
Paraguay, the U.S.'s final first-round challenger, gives up lots of shots but doesn't concede many goals. La Albirroja has given up a CONMEBOL-high 89 shots in six games but have conceded only six times, the third fewest in South American World Cup qualifying. Did we mention that the Americans probably need to win the group to avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals?
Colombia striker James Rodriguez took the third-most shots among all player in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.
Same as the old boss?
Despite growing calls for his head, Klinsmann's .703 winning percentage in competitive matches tops predecessors Bruce Arena (.674) and Bob Bradley (.677). The U.S. has had some huge road wins (Germany, Mexico, Italy, Netherlands) under Klinsmann, but have also struggled to consistently produce the attacking style he trumpeted when he took the job five years ago. In fact, the U.S. creates fewer shots per game now than it did under Arena and Bradley, and it gives up more opportunities in its own end. With Klinsmann's Yanks, it's always feast or famine. How things swing in June is anyone's guess.
Klinsmann's tenure has produced mixed results on the pitch.
In his defense
Center back remains a revolving door for the USMNT, as Klinsmann has played five different center backs in the team's first four World Cup qualifiers. The good news? American defenders made big strides in two of Europe's top leagues this season. DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland) and Geoff Cameron (Stoke City) were full-time starters in the English Premier League, while Borussia Monchengladbach's Fabian Johnson and Hertha Berlin's John Brooks had very strong campaigns in Germany. Johnson scored a career-best eight goals this season, including two in the Champions League for Monchengladbach, while Brooks was instrumental in Hertha Berlin's eight-place improvement up the Bundesliga table this season.
Hertha Berlin's performance was greatly improved when John Brooks played.
Old hands on deck
Despite last year's struggles, the U.S. will largely stick with experience. Klinsmann's 23-man Copa roster features 15 of the 23 players who went to Brazil, including aging but still effective stars Tim Howard (37), Jermaine Jones (34) and Clint Dempsey (33). Dempsey scored a team-high nine goals in 2015 and, with Jozy Altidore out injured, the rangy Texan will be leaned on for goals even more.
Though only five players over 33 remain on the U.S. roster, their impact is huge.
Youth is served
At just 17 years old, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic became the fourth-youngest scorer in Bundesliga history and the youngest player to appear for the USMNT in a World Cup qualifier. Fast, skilled and seemingly unflappable, the Pennsylvania native not only earned a spot on Klinsmann's 23-man Copa roster but should immediately contend for playing time on the wing.
Yedlin, 22, has been a regular with the Nats since the World Cup and had a good season at club level, starting the final 13 EPL matches for relegation survivor Sunderland. Striker Bobby Wood (23) is another young player to watch, as the hero of 2015's historic wins against Germany and the Netherlands buried 17 goals this season for Union Berlin, the third-highest total in the Bundesliga II. Look for Wood to push for a starting position with Altidore injured, as the native Hawaiian has tallied five goals in 12 appearances with the national team since the start of 2015.
Bobby Wood's goal total for Union Berlin was the highest of any American in Germany's top two leagues.
Stats as of May 22.