Tournament review: United States finish fourth in Copa America

The Copa America Centenario ended twice for the United States: first with a bang, then a whimper.

The bang, of course, was the bludgeoning meted out by Lionel Messi and his friends on Tuesday in Houston, a 4-0 drubbing on a night to forget.

The whimper came last night in Phoenix, as a Carlos Bacca goal earned Colombia their second victory over the United States in the Copa and the bronze medals that go along with it.

It was a moderately entertaining game, far more than any third-place game in a regional tournament has any right to be, and the U.S. showed well though they were ultimately unable to pick the lock of the Colombian defense and their keeper, David Ospina. A second-half flurry of offense saw no goals scored, with the only real fireworks coming from a double sending-off of Michael Orozco and Santiago Arias in second-half stoppage time, and the Colombians celebrated mutedly in front of a sparse crowd of 29,041 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

As it has been so often during Jurgen Klinsmann’s five-year reign over the national team, the United States’ Copa America results will be remembered as a mixed bag. Exceeding expectations by winning a difficult group and triumphing over a talented Ecuador side in the quarterfinals, the U.S. were nonetheless flattened in three matches against big teams.

Lineup consistency pays dividends

International soccer often forces you to change your side every game, and Klinsmann is more wont to change his side than most. But the manager kept an identical lineup for every group game, and a red card forced his only change for the quarterfinal match.

Klinsmann’s decision paid off in the quarterfinal, where the U.S. played their best soccer of the tournament against a very strong Ecuador side. With the benefit of three games to grow together, the Americans produced flowing spells of possession that ended in two excellent team goals. The increased defensive understanding paid off, too, with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron forming a strong partnership and the U.S. not conceding a single goal from open play until the semifinals.

Suspensions forced many changes for the semifinal, and the Americans were accordingly ripped to shreds. But with the first choice lineup available again for the third-place game, the U.S. suddenly looked much more competitive, even if the result disappointed.

Whither youth?

The Copa was a mixed bag for those who hoped to see a new generation of American stars emerge. Brooks was the USMNT’s best player through the first four games, pairing physical dominance with soccer intelligence in a package that should anchor the back line through the next World Cup cycle. Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes had solid tournaments, even playing out of position in a 4-3-3, and DeAndre Yedlin showed his quality save the mad pair of yellow cards he earned against Paraguay.

But what was disappointing was the players who didn’t get to feature. Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, two bundles of attacking creativity, barely played, only seeing the field late in matches that the U.S. already trailed. Even the largely meaningless third-place game saw Nagbe and Pulisic left on the bench until the final twenty minutes. Part of this, of course, can be attributed to the outstanding tournament performance by the seemingly ageless Clint Dempsey, who showed why he’s one of the greatest American attackers of all time. But Klinsmann’s unwillingess to play these two young stars, and his decision not to bring Jordan Morris into the side, raise questions about the team the manager is looking to build.

Speaking of Jordan Morris…

Perplexing roster choices

You’d think that Klinsmann would have learned his lesson from Jozy Altidore’s injury early in the 2014 World Cup. Without a similar forward to back up Altidore, the U.S. jigsawed the midfield into unfamiliar positions, reducing the effectiveness of players like Bradley.

Altidore wasn’t fit for the Copa, but Bobby Wood was — a similar burly combination of pace and power who could make runs or hold the ball up. After Wood took his second yellow card in the Ecuador match, earning a suspension for the semifinal, Klinsmann again lacked a like-for-like replacement. Chris Wondolowski deputized up top, where he barely broke a sweat while enjoying a front-row seat to Argentina’s outstanding play.

Why was Wondolowski, an ancient poacher who has barely contributed to the national team, called in for this important tournament over Jordan Morris? Morris is in good form in MLS, has played big minutes in big games for the U.S. in the past year, and — most importantly — has a skill set similar to Bobby Wood. Similar questions can be asked about the fullback spots, where the United States were forced to start centerbacks Matt Besler and Michael Orozco at fullback in different matches.

To be clear, these decisions wouldn’t have flipped the result against Argentina. But the team would have been in a much better position to make a match out of it if they weren’t dueling with their dullest swords.

Though I understand the desire for flexibility, in a short tournament where players will almost certainly be rotated it makes sense to have one system, with each position having a designed role, and two players on the squad who can play each position. Not following this simple role has cost the United States in three consecutive tournaments.

Overall, a mixed bag

Not every tournament is going to be a clear win or a clear loss, nor offer a firm answer to the question of “how good are we, really?”

In the Copa America Centenario, the United States played some good soccer, enough to quell doubts about a stuttering run of results and a poor World Cup qualifying campaign. The team has some talented players and a manager who occasionally knows how to get the best out of them.

But the United States also played some bad soccer, enough to make clear that this team is far of the heights of the world’s greatest sides. For their talent, there isn’t much depth, and the manager occasionally makes inexplicable decisions with tactics and team selection that leaves the team deeply disadvantaged.

After one more moment of high drama, the bright lights of the Copa America Centenario, a pleasant addition to a summer otherwise vacant of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL action, will fade away. Now we return to the long drudge of World Cup qualifying, the crushing pressure on Klinsmann and the national team relieved slightly but still intense enough to form sedimentary rock. Hard work remains to be done.


  1. This USMNT stopped the bleeding but JK has to put together a younger group in the next two years. Woods & Brooks emerged this time to join Yedlin & Zardes. Pulisic is ready. Morris, too. Dagbe should have played more. JK will stay through Russia unless we drop out sooner. Who will replace him?

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Well summated.

  3. Alicat215 says:

    The Wondo call may have been his worst call to date…….I’m still scratching my head at that. Cost us goals too. So in over his head you almost felt bad for him……nah, the SOBs should berate him heavily or have a song for him when SJ comes to town….. “don’t cry for me Argentina”………

  4. We will never be a real contender until we have very good technical players in the midfield that can think and react as fast as Argentina’s players showed us they can. Zardes plays too slow for me. I think Pulisic could be one of the answers. What ever happened to Julian Greene? He could be another answer. Also that Zeleledeen(forgot his name) kid. I would only keep Bradley in the midfield as the bruiser that can actually pass and has good vision. The other spots in midfield need an upgrade. To bad Clint is at the end of his career. He is class. We don’t have an equal to him in the mix as of yet. I like Brooks, Cameron, Johnson and Yedlin in the back. Guzan is good, but not as good as our last 3 keepers(Howard,Friedel,Keller).

    So, I think we are 2 or 3 really good midfielders away from being able to win against Top 10 teams regularly. Hope they show up on the field soon! Maybe we can find a way to give Messi another identity and sneak him into the midfield since he quit Argentina!!! Just dreaming

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