Skip to main content

USA facing brutal road, but chance for redemption at Copa America Centenario

NEW YORK -- When the Copa America Centenario draw ended, the sentiment among U.S. national team fans was one of concern. The Americans were given the toughest draw of all four top seeds in the tournament, but none of the Copa's weakest entrants found their way into Group A, leading to complaints about yet another 'Group of Death'.

You wouldn't have known it watching Jurgen Klinsmann emerge for post-draw interviews with a smile on his face as he asked awaiting journalists if they were excited. Whether he was simply showing a brave face or genuinely excited about the challenge that awaits this summer, Klinsmann sounded like a coach who may have actually liked seeing his team be dealt a tough schedule.

"Obviously it's a difficult group, no doubt about it, but it's doable," Klinsmann said after the draw. "We had a similar kind of scenario in Brazil and we went through, so now we start with Colombia right away instead of Ghana.

"Colombia is one of the top teams in South America, no doubt about it. Paraguay is a strong team. Costa Rica we know," he added. "We start right on our toes with the opening whistle in Santa Clara. It's exciting."

Perhaps Klinsmann sees this summer as the perfect opportunity to regain the good will he lost after the U.S. stumbled through a forgettable showing at the 2015 Gold Cup. In terms of fan approval rating, Klinsmann's is probably as low as it has ever been, and a strong showing in the Copa's toughest group would bring him back to the levels he enjoyed after the 2014 World Cup,

The American draw started out with Paraguay, arguably the toughest team in Pot 4, but the real drama always lied in Pots 2 and 3. Costa Rica was the worst-case scenario of the teams in Pot 3, so when the Ticos emerged from the bowl, a Group of Death billing was all but ensured given the powerhouses awaiting in the final pot.

The gasps were audible in the Hammerstein Ballroom when Colombia was drawn, no doubt a combination of reactions from worried U.S. fans, as well as Colombia fans, who were well-represented at the draw. The reaction was a somewhat surprising one because the reality is Uruguay or Chile would have been tougher draws, or at least more likely to be tougher opponents.

The issue with Colombia is that the Cafeteros are a stacked team from a talent standpoint, but one that has struggled to find the impressive rhythm and unity it showed at the 2014 World Cup. U.S. fans surely remembered how good Colombia looked in 2014, but the reality is Jose Pekerman's side has been inconsistent since then. Colombia managed just one goal in four matches at the 2015 Copa America, and posted mixed results in the early CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers last fall.

All that said, Colombia is still a team that boasts dangerous attacking firepower, from James Rodriguez to Carlos Bacca to Juan Cuadrado and Jackson Martinez. If Pekerman can help Colombia regain its 2014 swagger, then the Americans will be hard-pressed to stop the Cafeteros.

The biggest obstacle in the U.S. group isn't Colombia, but rather Costa Rica. The Ticos turned heads with a strong showing at the 2014 World Cup, then watched a horrendous penalty call rob them in a Gold Cup quarterfinal loss to Mexico. Costa Rica isn't the same team it was in 2014, when Jorge Luis Pinto had the Ticos playing stingy defense and counterattacking teams to death. Since that World Cup success, Costa Rica has seen many of its players move to top European leagues, with the likes of Keylor Navas and Joel Campbell enjoy career-best success.

As important as the strengthening player pool for Costa Rica is the confidence the Ticos will have heading into the Copa America after their success in Brazil in 2014. Nobody expected Costa Rica to do much in a brutal group that included Uruguay, Italy and England. Not only did the Ticos survive, they won their group, sparking a run all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals.

"That makes me calm. Now we can't be scared after what we did at the World Cup," Costa Rica head coach Oscar Ramirez said. "The players have that experience now. This is a different tournament, but players won't be scared now about being in a group of death."

Klinsmann expressed a similar sentiment about the U.S. showing at the 2014 World Cup. The reactions to the U.S. World Cup draw two years ago were even more negative than Sunday's draw reactions. That World Cup draw was seen as a worst-case scenario, complete with a brutal first match against familiar foe Ghana. That brutal draw produced an opportunity for the Americans to step up and exceed expectations. The U.S. did just that, surviving the 'Group of Death'.

"Would you like an easier group? Maybe on the paper, but then no group is easy," Klinsmann said. "We'll take it the way it is. We'll have done the same with Brazil and we'll do it now too. And then we'll go out there and give it a go."

Sunday's Copa draw wasn't as tough as the 2014 World Cup draw, but the current U.S. team isn't in as good a place as the 2014 U.S. team was in. That team came off a strong showing in World Cup qualifying and won all three pre-World Cup friendlies. There was a sense of momentum and possibility.

The current U.S. team is much more a work in progress, still trying to figure out its identity, which is probably the main reason why there's so much angst about the U.S. group. It isn't a stretch to say that if the U.S. doesn't sort out its defense, and figure out its midfield, we could see an 0-3 finish at the Copa America, which would be disastrous.

It will be up to Klinsmann and the U.S. team to get its act together in the coming months and turn Sunday's Copa draw into a Group of Opportunity rather than Group of Death.