Switching Dempsey's role tops list of changes Klinsmann needs to make
The United States opened up their Copa America tournament with a dispiriting 2-0 loss to Colombia in Santa Clara, California, on Friday night.
The Americans were beaten by a better team, which they might have been able to stomach if they hadn't missed an opportunity created by Colombia's relatively low-energy performance. Jurgen Klinsmann painted the game as "even" in the aftermath, but there's no arguing that the U.S. failed create much danger in the attacking end of the field.
Now it's on to Chicago, where the Americans face a must-not-lose game against Costa Rica at Soldier Field. The Ticos drew with Paraguay on Saturday, which put the U.S. in a position to grab second place in the group if they can win one of their remaining games. Logic says that this match, against a known commodity, is the one that the Americans should target. It helps that Costa Rica will be without first-choice defender Kendall Waston due to a red-card suspension.
The Colombia loss showed that the U.S. needs to fix some things if they team is going to advance to the knockout rounds of the tournaments. Along with a developing proper game plan for Costa Rica, a few changes could be the difference between living to fight for a spot in the quarterfinals and rank embarrassment on home soil.
Here's three tactical aspects that Klinsmann may look to change:
1. Start an actual center-forward or give Dempsey a partner
Clint Dempsey is a U.S. legend and remains key cog in the team for reasons that go well beyond his contributions on the field. But if Klinsmann is going to stick with the 4-3-3 formation that he used leading up to the tournament and against the Colombians, it's time to drop Dempsey.
Both Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood are more comfortable -- and more effective -- deployed centrally where they can run the channels and latch onto balls over the top (Wood is the presumed first option).
Dempsey's propensity to drop deep to pick up the ball stunts the Americans' ability to get forward quickly and exploit whatever space exists in front of the opponent's' back line. The wide players -- Wood and Zardes -- move to fill the void left by Dempsey, meaning the only width is going to come from the fullbacks. With defenders so far upfield, there's obvious domino effect back through the midfield.
Switching to a 4-4-2 or variation therefore would also improve matters, though there's an obvious trade-off by taking a body out of the midfield on the defensive side of the ball -- plus, this team has no out-and-out wingers (or fullbacks to replace players who can move to wing spots), making filling those roles nigh on impossible.
2. Sort out Michael Bradley's role
Just when it looked like Klinsmann had done the smart thing and dropped Michael Bradley deeper in the American formation so as to take advantage of this playmaking skills from farther away from goal, the Toronto FC midfielder put in a confounding performance against Colombia.
As the whole midfield looked lost, perhaps it's harsh to single out Bradley; but as the captain and metronome of the team, the burden of moving the U.S. along and connecting play from back to front belongs to him. Turnovers were a regular occurrence against Los Cafeteros, as if Bradley didn't quite understand his teammates well enough to pick the right pass.
More often than not, Bradley played sideways or negative, as if the threat of the Colombian counter sapped him of his willingness to be adventurous. It was probably a combination of all of that, with the national nerves of the still-new (namely, playing that formation with that midfield trio) dictating much of how Bradley played.
For the U.S. to succeed, Bradley needs to get comfortable, and fast. The players forming the triangle with him (presuming we see the 4-3-3 again) have to be able to provide the give the U.S. something going forward, ahead of Bradley.
3. Do better on set pieces
It's boring and reductive, but for the U.S. it remains absolutely true: in order to win, the Americans have to be better on set pieces.
That goes for both ends of the field. Against Colombia, the U.S. found themselves fighting from a goal down depressingly early because they failed to deal with a simply pick play on a Colombia corner. Geoff Cameron was otherwise very good in the game, but lost Cristian Zapata on a play he sees week-in, week-out in the Premier League.
Defending set pieces should never be taken for granted. It's worth wondering how well-drilled this team is on that area of the game considering Klinsmann has only just know locked down his preferred lineup.
The Americans didn't do much with their chances from restarts. Bradley's service was adequate, but didn't force any decisive action from Colombia's goalkeeper or find a teammate's head through smart placement. Free kicks were worse aside from Dempsey's quality hit that forced a save from David Ospina in the second half.
Set pieces have always been a strength for the U.S. If they're going to keep themselves alive in this tournament by beating Costa Rica on Tuesday, they'll need to make them a strength again.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.