CHICAGO — In its 101-year history, the U.S. national team has played in 28 major tournaments that began with a round-robin group stage. In 27 of those 28, the first match proved prophetic.
Twenty times the Americans won or tied the opener of a World Cup, Confederations Cup, Copa América or Gold Cup and 20 times, they qualified for the knockout rounds. The U.S. lost its first game on the other eight occasions. Seven times it failed to advance. The outlier came seven years ago, when coach Bob Bradley’s squad sensationally rebounded from two heavy defeats to rout Egypt and move on to the Confederations Cup semis. That goal differential miracle required in South Africa probably won’t come around again.
Maybe it’s about the momentum it generates or stalls. Perhaps it’s simply the first indication of whether a team is good enough to escape the group.
Either way, tournament openers typically set the stage. And if the commentary and collective angst that followed Friday’s 2-0 loss to Colombia is any indication, the curtain already is coming down on the Americans’ participation in this Copa América Centenario.
The U.S. wasn’t very threatening when it had the ball at Levi’s Stadium, made the sort of mistakes in its own end that good teams punish, and never really looked like a squad capable of challenging the Copa favorites. Whether one prefers to focus on a trend lasting two days or another lasting a century, the prospects don’t seem promising.
On the inside, however, this is a team convinced that the weight of history—or that of Friday’s loss—has little impact on its future. From coach Jurgen Klinsmann on down, the national team seems to believe it still controls its fate and that the door to the quarterfinals remains wide open.
“Everybody is a little bit too much our critic,” defender John Brooks told reporters on Sunday morning here in Chicago, where the Americans are preparing for Tuesday’s Group A match against Costa Rica. “I think the game that we saw [against Colombia] and that we played was O.K. We got caught on two set pieces. It’s little bit bad but we’re still in the [tournament]. Costa Rica and Paraguay tied, so everything is open for us.”
Indeed, Saturday's scoreless draw between Costa Rica and Paraguay left the U.S. just one point out of second place. Victories on Tuesday and next Saturday in Philadelphia—games the Americans should be expected to win on home soil—will send them through.
“I think we played our toughest opponent that we’re going to face,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said Sunday. “The next two games are a good opportunity to go there and take points from that and control what we can do.”
On Friday in Santa Clara, California, Klinsmann preferred to focus on the run of play against Colombia—the No. 3 team in the world—rather than the final score. He argued that the eighth-minute goal Los Cafeteros scored off a corner kick forced the U.S. to play to the strengths of an opponent that’s at its best when staying compact and counterattacking. The Americans won the possession battle but managed to put only two shots on target.
“I mean, we were totally even. We didn’t give them anything,” the manager said. “It’s really important for our players to see that they’re absolutely beatable, that they come out of this game and say, ‘O.K., you know what? Give the three points to them. But it’s absolutely no problem going forward to say we play Costa Rica to get three points and we play Paraguay to get three points and then we’re in the quarterfinals.’ The message overall is positive to the players even though if we’re obviously disappointed we didn’t get any points.”
The U.S. faced graver must-win circumstances in March, when a loss to Guatemala could have derailed qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Klinsmann’s team responded with a comprehensive 4-0 win.
“Everybody’s ready, ready for [Tuesday’s] game,” said Clint Dempsey, who notched the game-winner that night in Columbus. “It’s a must-win situation. Our backs are against the wall. We’ve been there before.”
Dempsey’s role is one of the key tactical questions Klinsmann faces. The veteran forward spent too much time on Friday retreating into midfield to find the ball, and neither Gyasi Zardes nor Bobby Wood was able to stretch Colombia with runs behind the defense. Proactive possession became even tougher to maintain as the threat of Colombia’s timely pressure and counterattack pulled the U.S. midfield apart. Jermaine Jones said he spent so much time watching Colombia winger Juan Cuadrado that he was unable to contribute much going forward. Captain Michael Bradley had difficulty establishing his own rhythm and connecting with U.S. teammates, committing several troubling turnovers.
Klinsmann could stick with the 4-3-3, or he could shift to a 4-4-2 that gives Dempsey more support up front. Consequently, Jones would play either as an attacking midfielder behind the forwards (the days of the two-man pivot appear to be over) or closer to the touchline. The latter would open up the No. 10 role for Nagbe. It’s one that many would like to see him play. But it also would force Jones into a wider spot, giving him less space with which to work.
Klinsmann likes having options and hasn’t been afraid to make changes. But he said Friday that alignment is less important than approach.
“I think it plays no role at all. You keep a 4-3-3 or you go like the last 20 minutes [against Colombia] into a 4-4-2,” he said. “The key is to find ways to play through a very compact and very well organized Colombian side. We have to find ways there to find the forwards up front, to find spots to go through. It doesn’t really matter what system you play there. We have to find those opportunities against Costa Rica and finish them off.”
Figure out a way to do that and avoid big mistakes in the back (Geoff Cameron lost his mark on the opening goal and DeAndre Yedlin committed a handball that resulted in a Colombian penalty kick), and Costa Rica can be beaten. Friday’s performance may leave fans thinking that those are big asks of a U.S. team that lacks forward momentum. But that hasn’t seemed to damage confidence here in Chicago. Costa Rica isn’t Colombia, and lessons were learned in Santa Clara.
“It’s not a mentality question,” Brooks said. “We also showed a good mentality against Colombia and that mentality we have to bring on the field also against Costa Rica and Paraguay.”
Dempsey understood the doubts and argued the U.S. is capable of erasing them at Soldier Field.
“It’s not so much what you say. It’s what you do,” he said. “We got to go out and we’ve got to motivate the crowd. We’ve got to work hard and we’ve got to inspire them and get them on our side. We appreciate the fans’ support. It’s always awesome to be in a stadium and have a pro-American crowd. But at the same time, actions speak louder than words, and we’ve got to go out there and show what we can do.”