Lack of history, context makes it difficult to see USMNT's Copa America future
DALLAS – Among fans and the chattering class, we chew on our sports in a pitifully well-worn pattern: We predict. We watch. We analyze the ever-living heck out of it.
It all happens against a backdrop of history and context, which makes sense. But what happens when the essential framework of history and context goes missing? That’s where we are in trying to draw up predictions for this one-and-done Copa America Centenario.
It is a brand new property, or something close to it; a bit like a cousin you never see. They’re in the family, so you kinda-sorta know of them, but you’re not sure what the heck they might say over dinner.
More cynically, we might call this thing a made-up event that has the distinct smell of an opportunistic cash grab. Then again, who cares? Because the soccer should be fantastic, ticket sales look good across 10 venues and the tourney’s star power is primo, even if Neymar is sitting this one out.
But then we get to the predictability factor. We are lost in the woods on knowing true degrees of motivation. We think the teams from South America care. We surmise that Mexico wants to demonstrate its gravitas. And it makes sense that the United States wants to flex its muscles and get the car wheels back on the road.
U.S. teams tend to rise when it matters most. In that way, this feels a bit like the 2009 Confederations Cup. Never mind expectations at low ebb; Bob Bradley’s bunch rather famously eliminated Spain before falling to Brazil in the tourney final.
So, back and forth we go on the roller coaster of prediction.
Roster in hand, we know a little more
At least now we know more about the precise makeup of Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, a tad older than some of us might like, but blessed with some up-and-comers. Aside from a couple of late arrivers, the United States’ 23-man assembly (announced Saturday) is training in Dallas ahead of Wednesday’s friendly against Ecuador.
Klinsmann seems to feel good about things. Tuesday, he said the semifinals was his goal, which means advancing out of group play and winning a quarterfinal. And it’s a bit of an elevated target; merely getting out of the group is a more standard reply in these cases. Even some of his players said successful escaping a tough group (Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay) is what matters most for now.
Klinsmann’s confidence also shows in his planning. To make the point clear – and perhaps to goose this group’s collective self-belief – he has made logistical plans through the month of June. That is, Klinsmann has picked out hotels and flights and has outlined training schedules (the cycles of load, recovery, regeneration, etc.) through the final.
Can they get there? Well, the odds makers like their chances. They don’t love the U.S. chances, but being positioned as third favorite behind Argentina and Brazil doesn’t look too bad, does it? Klinsmann’s team is more or less aligned with Chile (depending on which set of odds you’re looking at) just ahead of Mexico, Colombia and Uruguay on the oddsmakers’ charts.
Hosts always do well at these things, although this is where history as a stable platform gets a little dicey. For instance, Chile won as hosts at the last Copa America, which was just last summer. Then again, that was the actual Copa America, as opposed to a ceremonial tournament held mostly inside American football stadiums, in a place where the average Joe on the street wouldn’t know Copa America from a cup of bold brew coffee.
This certainly is the most anticipated international soccer tournament held in the United States since the 1994 World Cup. The U.S. team exceeded expectations then, manufacturing an upset for the ages (Colombia in the Rose Bowl) to squeeze out of group play.
“The starting point is always the same, whether it’s a World Cup, Copa America or a Gold Cup,” Michael Bradley said Tuesday. “You’ve got to find a way to navigate through the group, and then after three games be one of the teams still playing … Then you regroup and start getting ready for the next phase.”
Second round? No slam dunk
Moving on from first-round play is anything but a slam dunk for the United States, last seen in competitive play falling completely to pieces against little Guatemala.
Getting points in a tourney opener is, of course, so meaningful in group play. But that means getting points against a talented, dynamic Colombian side. Colombia was a 2-1 winner when these teams met for a friendly in London in the fall of 2014. Seven U.S. starters that day are on the Yanks’ Copa roster, and they’re likely to be starters again.
U.S. hopes are buoyed currently by a group of players coming off good seasons. DeAndre Yedlin, for instance, looks like a different player, steeled by a year at Sunderland. Monday, before practice on the SMU campus, Yedlin said he feels like a new player, too - a better defender and more mature person all around.
The problem is that too many of these in-form types are in defense or midfield. Not to put too fine a point on it, but which forward is going to hit for a couple goals? “Help us, Clint Dempsey, you’re our only hope!” Well, unless Bobby Wood can rise to the occasion – a big ask for a guy who did excel this year in 2.Bundesliga, but now may be asked to fill Jozy Altidore’s big (and injured) shoes.
So, the team picked as third favorite has big work ahead just to get out of the first round. Or so it seems. And if that looks odd to you … well, you’re not alone.
Individually, there is plenty to be gained for most members of the 23-man roster. Yedlin, for instance, says he recognizes the opportunity to lock down the U.S. right back position. “Every opportunity is a good opportunity to lock down a spot as long as you’re up for it,” he said. “There’s great competition here, so you can never relax and get too comfortable. But you also want to play relaxed, if that makes sense, and do the best you can.”
So, relax … but don’t relax. That about right? You know, that kind of makes sense for this tournament – an event that only makes sense on the whole when you squint your eyes a bit.
Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.