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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup

Jurgen Klinsmann hasn't delivered on his promises for the U.S. national team

Here's a fact about the United States men's national team that many people seem to overlook: It's far from a great squad in the grand scheme of international soccer. This isn't a shot meant to belittle Jurgen Klinsmann's group; it's simply the truth.

Pick a metric. The Americans are 31st in the latest FIFA ranking, sandwiched between the Czech Republic and Algeria. They sit 23rd in ESPN's Soccer Power Index; better, yes, but still behind six South American teams, 12 from Europe and, of course, Mexico. (Also: Algeria, Japan and Senegal for the completists out there.)

While the Americans are one of seven countries to qualify for every World Cup since 1990 -- Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain are the others -- that's at least partially due to the relative ease of CONCACAF qualifying. There's no real reason to think that the U.S. should be able to stay with Argentina, an excellent team desperate to hoist a trophy led by the world's best player.

So when we talk about the Americans' performance at the Copa America Centenario, set aside Tuesday night's 4-0 shellacking in Houston, what's left? A first-place finish in a difficult Group A, a nice run to the semifinals and a feeling that there's hope for the future. The victory against Ecuador, the first knockout stage win in a major tournament since the 2009 Confederations Cup, was peak positivity, a moment when the promises of the Klinsmann era finally met, or at least approached, reality.

Except none of that is true.

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Against Ecuador, the U.S. were out-possessed 58-42, 74-26 in the final third. They were out-passed 390-263. Offensive third touches were 248-86 in favor of Ecuador. One of the best attacking players, Fabian Johnson, was more or less minimized, with just 12 touches in the offensive third.

Bobby Wood managed a game-low 33 total touches. The U.S. was about six inches from John Brooks tying the game on an own goal. A close corollary in style and substance is the win against Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, in which possession was 56-44 in favor of the European team. That's a game most fans remember as one in which the U.S. barely hung on.

Fabian Johnson heat map
Fabian Johnson failed to get forward against Ecuador, something that's simply not acceptable from such a key player.

Against Ecuador, the Americans did hang on. There's value in doing so because the result is the single-most important outcome of an individual soccer game. But Klinsmann and his team also talk about the process, the idea of slow improvement over time, the concept of making progress. We didn't see that much evidence at Copa America that the Stars and Stripes are making significant moves forward. They were middle of the pack in many stats, made to look better by a remarkably high (and totally unsustainable) 50 percent conversion rate in shots on goal.

In the first four games of Copa America, the Americans had just 43.4 percent of possession. The Colombia match was the only game they had more of the ball. The way the U.S. found success during the group stage and quarterfinal was through working harder than the other team, which had been missing from some Klinsmann teams during the past five years, but it's also not exactly a revelation. It's how the U.S. has always succeeded.

Across the balance of four games, Wood was dangerous at times, but is Geoff Cameron passing it over the top to Wood really that different from Oguchi Onyewu or Jay DeMerit trying to pick out a streaking Charlie Davies in 2009?

Clint Dempsey, who led the team in scoring at the 2006 World Cup, remains the only player who can finish on a consistent basis. Too often, Gyasi Zardes' disastrous first touches undid promising attacking forays. Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, the two players with the most pre-tournament hype, barely figured. When the quarterfinal vs. Ecuador got tight, Klinsmann turned to Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi rather than the younger players he has praised so effusively, and then to Chris Wondolowski as well in the semifinal. The Copa run wasn't a revolution; it was simply more of the same.

If anything, it offered the unusual picture of Klinsmann as a conservative manager. After half a decade of zigging when he could (or should?) have zagged -- leaving Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster, refusing to start the same lineup twice, playing players out of position, throwing young guys into the fire to see if they survived, basically never being predictable -- his choices during the past few weeks were downright staid. Some of them, like sticking with a uniform back four, mostly worked; others didn't, like the starting XI vs. Argentina.

At the Copa, Klinsmann set up his team to do something he hasn't done much of during his tenure: play pragmatic soccer. The Americans ground out wins, working hard and doing just enough. If he had a choice to go for it or pull back, he picked the latter option, the safer one that carried lower risk but also less potential reward. He has never been quite so nakedly after results. Was he worried about his job security, concerned that if wins didn't come this summer, he wouldn't be around to reap the benefits of having taken a chance by playing younger guys with higher ceilings?

We'll look back at the 2016 Copa America as a success. And we should. The Americans reached the semifinal, Klinsmann's stated goal, and a result that the vast majority of fans would have accepted before the tournament began. And yet, the way they got there was disappointing. The hope of the Klinsmann era was that he would somehow blend the hard-working American mentality of past teams with the skill sets of young, exciting, emerging players, developing some sort of hybrid style. That's why he was hired. During the past fortnight, that ambition was abandoned. We'll see if it returns.

"You have to take risks," Klinsmann said before the semifinal. He didn't, and he hadn't. But there's always tomorrow.

Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.


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