The USMNT suffered a disappointing 2-0 loss to Colombia on Friday. The Cafeteros took advantage of a Geoff Cameron marking error and a DeAndre Yedlin handball to take the lead into the locker room. While the Yanks had their chances to score, they couldn't convert them.
What's disappointing about that loss is that Colombia were there for the taking. Part of it was that they took an early lead, and felt comfortable coasting the rest of the way, regularly testing the American defense on the counter. The Copa schedule of three group games in nine days, including travel, is physically taxing. A team like Colombia would've been vulnerable to a team hitting them hard on the counter, stretching their defense.
That's not what happened; the USMNT played purely reactive soccer, unable to press effectively. With Fabian Johnson playing left back instead of left wing or midfield, which he did for Borussia Mönchengladbach this past season, the three USMNT midfielders were forced to cover for him, unbalancing the midfield heavily.
That's why tonight's game is suddenly a "must-win" for the USMNT, in Clint Dempsey's words. Instead of aiming for the semifinals, which Jurgen Klinsmann declared was the team's goal for this tournament before the Copa began, he's now saying that the USMNT will do well to get out of the group.
Tonight, the Yanks have to beat Costa Rica to entertain any realistic hope of advancing out of the group. A draw wouldn't quite eliminate the USMNT, but it would leave them needing to beat Paraguay on Saturday and hoping that Colombia don't lose to Costa Rica.
This Ticos team isn't the spectacular squad from the 2014 World Cup, though. They're playing without their best defender, their top 2 keepers, and one less day of rest after playing Paraguay in 100 degree heat. If they can't get the 3 points with the decided home field advantage in Chicago, then there's no reason to expect that they'll beat a poor Paraguay, either.
Let's get two things clear.
First, regardless of what happens in the Copa América, Jurgen Klinsmann isn't going anywhere. US Soccer supremo Dr Sunil Gulati has made that abundantly clear. Klinsmann - regardless of results, regardless of fan sentiment -- will manage the team through the 2018 World Cup.
Second, this is the deepest U.S. squad since the 2006 World Cup, if the 2002 World Cup. This is a team that should be expected to make the knockouts of the Copa -- especially when playing at home. It's a team that should beat teams like Jamaica, and crush Guatemala. Look at Friday's lineup -- the entire backline plays in either the Premier League or the Bundesliga. Bedoya plays for Nantes. Wood plays for Hamburg. These aren't scrub teams, and these players feature for those teams. Not only that, but they play better for the club teams than they do for the national team.
Not only that, but their play as a team is nigh unwatchable. There's no evidence of the progressive, attacking style that Klinsmann was supposed to have ushered in by now, five years after taking control. The archetypal Klinsmann player isn't a Pulisic or a Wood; it's a Gyasi Zardes, teeming with athletic potency and utterly devoid of technical skill. In other words: the kind of player that Klinsmann was supposed to move the team on from.
The team either bunkers up like it's 1994, or wanders aimlessly, eleven players doing eleven individual things to win the game. That's precisely what happened on Friday: instead of executing a high press against Colombia, players were pressing individually, and their play as a unit was entirely reactive. That let Colombia dictate the tempo of the game and left the Americans chasing the game. And the players knew it. This is a group of players caught between a rock and a hard place. Klinsmann has no credibility with them at all. But they know that he's not going anywhere, either. So they're left to muddle through, best as they can. It's hard to find a more dispirited squad than this one.
So what should we expect for tonight's game on FS1?
I think Klinsmann is probably going to ditch the 4-3-3 he went with on Friday and use a 4-4-2 instead. He should start Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, rather than bring them off the bench, but since that deprives him of two impact subs, he'll probably stick with Wood and Gyasi Zardes upfront, which has its own implications for offense.
If it's a four-man midfield, expect Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey, and Jermaine Jones. The problem with that is that Dempsey is awful at maintaining possession. Bradley had a stinker of a game on Friday; he'll probably perform better tonight, but he'll be the lone creative force in the midfield, so expect Dempsey, Wood, and Zardes to drop deep in order to get the ball.
The four-man backline will also likely not change, so that means that whomever is doing duty on the left midfield will have to help out Fabian Johnson on the left.
On paper, the USMNT should win this game, for all the reasons I laid out above. But the game is played on grass, not paper. Costa Rica knows that if they beat the USMNT tonight at Soldier Field, not only do they essentially win a berth in the quarterfinals, they knock out the Yanks in their home stadium. They'll be coming at the USMNT hard from the start. Don't be surprised if the Ticos take an early lead as a result. And if that happens, then you can probably close the door on the American presence in this year's Copa América.