Copa America Centenario Post-Mortem: A Mixed Bag
June 27, 2016
COPA AMERICA CENTENARIO fully qualifies as a success for the sport in this country, particularly in terms of attendance and audience interest. For the U.S. men's national team, the fourth place finish is a positive result and in line with Jurgen Klinsmann’s stated goal.
Still, the two losses to Colombia and the semifinal loss to Argentina proved quite telling. Yes, the U.S. was the underdog in all three matches but the squad's inability to raise its game at home against top opponents was a reminder that the U.S. still has a long, long way to go and that not much progress has been made since the 2014 World Cup.
Here are my thoughts on the tournament from a U.S. perspective.
Cameron-Brooks is a quality tandem
The biggest takeaway from this tournament is that the central defense pairing looks set for the near future. John Brooks raised his game and took a big step toward realizing his first-rate potential. Geoff Cameron, meanwhile, overcame an early gaffe in the opening game against Colombia to have a good tournament.
This is no small accomplishment. Coming into the tournament there were questions at every position along the backline. Klinsmann elected to stick with Cameron and Brooks as long as he could—and it worked. Central defense stability is crucial to any team's success and a solid foundation can cover up a lot of problems. As the Yanks turn their attention to the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualification, one aspect of the roster appears to be squared away.
And central defense is a deep position for the Americans. Omar Gonzalez is playing well for Pachuca, Steve Birnbaum is serviceable, and Matt Besler still has plenty to give. In addition, the list of central defense prospects for the U.S. includes Matt Miazga, Erik Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Tim Parker, to name just a few.
That said, it wil take something special to break up the Brooks and Cameron established over these past few weeks.
Wood will push Altidore and Dempsey
Bobby Wood raised his game during Copa America Centenario, establishing himself as a key contributor on Klinsmann's squad.
Despite scoring just once at the tournament, the Hamburg strike proved valuable. He was involved in the build-up on numerous scoring chances, he fought hard (and showed lots of physical strength), and was frequently dangerous. Most forwards need to find ways to add value even when not scoring, and Wood did succeeded in that regard.
Because Wood played so well, few seemed to notice that Jozy Altidore missed another major tournament due to injury. Aron Johannsson and Rubio Rubin have also faced lengthy injuries in the past year, and Wood deserves full credit for taking advantage of his opportunity.
Dempsey and Jones can still bring it
In 2016 there were questions surrounding Jermaine Jones, 34, and Clint Dempsey, 33, as to whether or not age had caught up to them. They both responded with very strong tournaments. Despite the red card to Jones in the quarterfinal, he made numerous big plays and reestablished his value to the unit.
Of course there will come a time when these two run out of gas, and there are important questions as to whether the U.S. is adequately prepared for their eventual demise. The post-Dempsey era seems particularly frightening at the moment, given his involvement in so many scoring chances.
Those are questions for another day, however, as both are still very relevant.
The midfield is not getting better
From a U.S. perspective, the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the midfield. When the Americans lost to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup round of 16, Klinsmann said afterward that he knew the U.S. was outplayed and needed to have tactically better players. He also noted there was a big learning curve ahead for the U.S.
“When you invest a lot of energy like we did for the World Cup, where we outworked the opponent but did not necessarily outplay the opponent, it shows you that we are also behind tactically,” Klinsmann said in a March 2015 roundtable. “We build the foundation of having the physical capabilities to go full speed with them but we also at the same time need to develop smarter players and players that are capable to technically outplay them and tactically be faster."
The problem is that in 2014, the World Cup team had a midfield that was built around Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi, and Kyle Beckerman. Two years later, that same group of players provides the core of the midfield in 2016.
To no one’s surprise, when going up against top teams like Argentina and Colombia, the U.S. was completely outplayed. Even in games it won, there were long stretches against Paraguay and Ecuador where the U.S. was on its heels. With those core midfield players all pushing 30, it is safe to say they’re not going to develop in the two years since the World Cup so expecting a change during Copa America Centenario was unrealistic.
Could Klinsmann have tried something different? Are there no other American midfielders ready to step in?
It's true that the U.S. does not have any group of players that can play with Colombia, Argentina, or Chile. But the limitations of the existing core are known. What would the limitations be right now if Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, or Fabian Johnson joined the midfield? We don’t know.
Nagbe has looked very strong at times since joining the team last fall. Pulisic is young, gifted, and fearless. With Matt Besler playing at left back (a well-executed maneuver by Klinsmann) Johnson could have moved to his best position in the midfield.
Lost opportunity for experience
Right now, the only meaningful games ahead for the U.S. team until Russia will be against CONCACAF opponents. Despite Mexico’s disastrous loss to Chile, El Tri is still good team and Costa Rica has plenty of quality. After that, there is big falloff inside of this region.
Klinsmann wanted to play his best team at this tournament and it's understandable that he tries to bring his best-possible team to World Cup qualifiers. But the squad rotation was very small for this tournament as Klinsmann found a starting lineup (mostly of established players) he liked and stuck with it as much as possible.
It's tough for new players to break in during World Cup qualifiers and January camp has not been productive the last two cycles as Gyasi Zardes’ debut in 2015 seems to be the only instance of a player who has broken into the team on a regular basis.
So if this Copa America team is going to need significant turnover ahead of Russia, when will that take place?
The U.S. proved it can win home games against mid-tier South American teams in official competitions. That’s not bad and it was nice to see positive energy surround the team for a few weeks after a brutal two years since the World Cup.
Looking at this tournament in isolation, it was a success. Looking at it as a building block toward the future, it becomes harder to answer. Aside from the central defense, did we learn anything new?
The Americans' victories in this tournament were very reminiscent of how they won games in the 1990s and early 2000s. Propelled by energy and emotion, the team fought hard and secured victory through a few key moments of inspiration. It’s hard to say there has been much progress made since that 2014 loss to Belgium but it's good to see some classic U.S. team traits still exist because they are effective.
On a final note, U.S. Soccer needs to do whatever is in its power to have a tournament like the Copa America on a regular basis. Even if it is not hosting the event, the U.S. needs a tournament outside of the World Cup that it can count on. It can’t be as a watered-down guest team either. Right now, the Gold Cup is not enough for the long spell between World Cups. The U.S. is ready for more.