Big players must rise to occasion for USMNT to avoid Copa America disaster
CHICAGO – Just four days ago we were tripping over one another to analyze this Copa America Centenario field, beating each other silly with pre-tourney forecasts of which teams would succeed and how far they would go, especially for the host United States.
But by late Tuesday night it could be over for the Americans. Effectively so, at least, for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team. It will be if Tuesday’s “totally even” isn’t better than Friday’s “totally even.”
We need more guys having better games.”
Klinsmann’s curious and debatable assessment of Friday’s 2-0 opening-match loss to Colombia wasn't exactly wrong. Now, it sure as heck wasn’t right – but he wasn't comically off the mark. Honestly, along the Klinsmann Nonsense scale, this one barely rates.
Even allowing for the likelihood that Jose Pékerman's Colombia team, strategically plotting out three group games on two short turn-arounds, probably wasn't interested in reaching top gear, the Yanks weren't miles behind.
But there certainly were areas for improvement to address before Tuesday’s tell-all job against the Ticos of Costa Rica. If Klinsmann’s team can tighten some nuts and bolts here and there, well, hope floats that they’ll still be relevant for the group-closer later this week. The players arrived Monday into their day-before walk-through at Soldier Field with some chips on their shoulders. Geoff Cameron did, at least, playfully but pointedly chiding media about never thinking the Yanks had a chance against Colombia anyway.
Maybe Michael Bradley did, too. It’s hard to tell with him sometime, because he’s a serious and contemplative sort, anyhow. If he and others did, it’s a good thing; U.S. teams historically tend to rev a little higher when feeling like the picked-on kid in the lunchroom.
Plus, a few other elements are falling nicely into place ahead of Tuesday's match at Soldier Field. Costa Rica, burdened already by one fewer day of rest, is without a starting central defender Kendall Waston (suspended) and goalkeeper Keylor Navas (injured).
Still, Klinsmann's men won't win just by showing up. They need to improve in a few areas, clearly.
Men who matter need to matter more
First, the U.S. men who matter need to be more present. We're looking at Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones here. (Brad Guzan, too, although there wasn't much to pick on in his performance Friday.)
Now, who knows if Dempsey, increasing prone to flinging himself to the ground at the first hint of contact, still has it in him? Plenty of us are wondering. But if Klinsmann insists on starting him, and on deploying the Seattle Sounders attacker beyond his comfort zone as a striker, then it's on Dempsey to produce. Yes, he's done so very much for his country. Scoring in three World Cups? Are you kidding me? So, maybe it's asking a lot to rise again, but there it is.
It's not asking too much of Bradley and he knows so. The U.S. captain said Monday that we can all stop already with the tactical breakdowns, best use of personnel, etc. “We need more guys having better games,” Bradley said, including himself in a typically no-nonsense appraisal. And one that was dead on.
Bradley simply must be safer in possession. From a spot further up the field, with Kyle Beckerman or some other trusty bloodhound behind him, sniffing out potential giveaways by teammates, Bradley can afford a mistake or two. But not in that screening role.
Look, it’s nails on chalkboard for U.S. fans to hear it, but the U.S. marquee men need a bit more Rafa Marquez in them. Yes, that freakin’ guy! We can all swap stories about why Marquez boils our water so, but he always shows up for his country. He faithfully finds that next level, and did so again Sunday night, scoring a pivotal goal in a win over Uruguay. At age 37!
Speaking of that Mexico-Uruguay match, it gave the tournament a bit of a jolt, the shrill alarm clock it needed after a sleepy opening weekend. What we saw were two teams more serious about this thing. The game had a meanness, a real edge.
A few more U.S. men have to locate that edge. That means leaning in a little harder into the challenges, working harder to win 50-50s and second balls, making the extra run, etc. Klinsmann suspects his team is gathering up those extra stores of grit and want-to. “We all understand what’s at stake,” he said Monday. “It’s a must-win situation. You’ve got to get your first three points and then you see how things play out in third game. They are full of energy, full of optimism to get three points. We have respect for this Costa Rican team, but we’ve got to get it done tomorrow night.”
Details, details … they matter
Mostly it means paying better attention to details. This is where Klinsmann’s “totally even” assessment wasn’t far off. What Colombia did better, mostly, was in finding a way in the critical moments. And in paying better heed to details.
Not just most of the details most of the time, but staying 100 percent on top of things 100 percent of the time. Geoff Cameron, for instance, had a great game Friday – except for the one moment that he didn't, losing his mark to concede the opening goal.
“Costa Rica is a team that, if you give them two or three chances, they are going to put one in,” Klinsmann said. Given the lack of U.S. chances and ideas lately, one chance might just be enough for the Ticos, who will probably play five in the back and scan for counter attacking chances.
The biggest detail to mind: set pieces. The United States simply must be big hammers looking for nails on offensive and defensive set pieces. On the initial marking, of course, but also – here’s a dog that bit previous U.S. teams going back to Bob Bradley's days in charge – in reorganizing quickly once the first ball is cleared. Colombia’s opener came off a corner kick.
“For me it was frustrating because I know I can do better,” said Cameron, the guilty party. “But we had opportunities. We know we can score on set pieces. We have a lot of guys good in the air. Clint almost had one. So hopefully offensively we’ll get that done offensively and defensively we’ll have to be tight.”
The initial ball on free kicks and corner kicks in Costa Rica's end, be it from Dempsey or Bradley or someone else, needs to be razor wire sharp; Friday they generally weren’t even children’s scissor sharp.
Before we finish outlining areas asking for improvement, we've got to pick at this scab once again: they cannot give up an early goal. Seriously, somebody double check the pre-game spread for traces of rogue Ambien! How does this keep happening? The United States slipped on this banana peel again and again in 2015. It happened in the World Cup qualifying debacle in March against Guatemala. And it happened Friday against Colombia.
For his part, Klinsmann can help matters by playing more of his men in their best spots. Dempsey as a striker doesn't work - especially not when flanked by two young bucks, Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, who tend to lean inside. But since Klinsmann offered up an alignment and a personnel plan that mostly made sense. So ... well … let's not get greedy.
The Ticos are good, but they aren't Colombia. Especially not in a slightly weakened, potentially drained state. Clean a couple of things up, and the United States is right back in this puppy. Maybe Costa Rican manager Oscar Ramirez will be the one trying to sell us some fuzzy math, stretching a bad score line into “totally even.”
Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.