There's still hope for the U.S. despite their Copa opening defeat vs. Colombia
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann frequently seems to be wearing rose-tinted glasses when he evaluates the play of his team. It's almost a joke at this point; the manager offers his thoughts while the journalists in the press conference look around, wondering if they saw the same match. When the quotes filter out into the Twittersphere, the amateur commentators, prognosticators and always-accurate armchair analysts pounce, comparing what happened in Klinsmann's mind with the actual result.
Many times, this second-guessing is justified but, after the Americans' 2-0 defeat to Colombia that opened the Copa America Centenario, it's not. This time, the complaining, kvetching and general disgust is overwrought. Don't believe what you read: The loss wasn't that bad. Further, it was actually one of the more inspiring affairs in recent U.S. Soccer memory, a hint of a positive future coming just around the bend.
First, the game. Yes, the red, white and blue lost. And yes, they didn't look particularly dangerous for long stretches of time. And yes, Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic stayed on the sideline too long, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya had to go too wide, and Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes spent too much time cheating centrally. (And yes, Klinsmann did say "there was no difference [between the two sides] besides the two goals," which is an all-time Klinsmannism.)
Those are valid critiques; they also only tell half the story.
The Americans defended well, keeping James Rodríguez & Co. contained while allowing goals on momentary mistakes, not systemic failures. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks proved their mettle in central defense and simply need more reps. The U.S. had nearly 61 percent of the possession in the first half and although they didn't create many chances, they managed a few and were a pass away from more. If you're into Expected Goals as a guide, the U.S. had 0.72 to Colombia's 0.78 (plus the penalty). It was close.
Look, if Dempsey's left-footed blast in the 36th minute is six inches to the right, we're talking about the Americans as a plucky side, not one that got their stars and stripes crossed into a confounding conundrum.
No one would say it was a perfect game. It just wasn't a disaster, either. Michael Bradley's performance exemplifies this split. He wasn't his best, completing just 77 percent of his passes on the night (he's averaged 84 percent since the start of 2013) and committed the turnover that led to the penalty kick. (Keep your hands down, DeAndre Yedlin!)
Bradley needs to be better. He said as much after the match: "We needed to be a little sharper, a little better, a little more ruthless to be able to make something for ourselves." There's no reason to think he won't be going forward. The Colombia match felt more like an aberration than the new normal. Plus, look at his heat map and passing charts. He played a more reserved role, in front of the back line, spraying balls up field and dictating play. That is his best position.
The plan failed against Los Cafeteros but that's no reason to abandon the idea, nor does Klinsmann seem inclined to do so. This is what you wanted, American soccer fans. Give it a couple of games to succeed.
Further afield, there's more hope. Yedlin, Brooks and Wood are light years better than they were at this time in 2015. After the lost generation of the failed 2012 Olympic qualifying squad (of which recently exiled Mix Diskerud has been the most successful) seeing younger players improve so dramatically in just 12 months is essential. Klinsmann should have subbed Nagbe and Pulisic earlier but maybe he simply wasn't accustomed to having that type of game-changer waiting on the bench? (This is facetious. It's also not untrue.)
Add those two players to the list of guys who weren't in the starting picture a year ago. Throw in a consistently solid Bedoya, Fabian Johnson who can disappear but flashes brilliance in spots and Dempsey battling to hold off Father Time: that's not a bad lineup now and, more importantly, going forward.
In soccer, hope springs eternal, with another group of players just around the corner. For most of Klinsmann's tenure, that next group has disappointed, a procession of guys failing to meet their potential. These last six, eight or 12 months, however, we've started to see some young men find the right club situations and grab their opportunities. Klinsmann doesn't deserve all the credit or even most of it. He does deserve some.
More than a style, the U.S. program needed an attitude tweak. While Klinsmann will never be a great in-game manager but he has done a fair bit to impress upon players the necessary need to push themselves. We're seeing that work in the composition of the Copa roster.
On Tuesday, the U.S. battles Costa Rica, a squad with a vaunted five-man blackline (minus suspended Kendall Waston) that's desperate for a win after a 0-0 draw with Paraguay. It's a fixture from which the Americans should earn three points. Following that, they'll play Paraguay, likely needing a victory to reach the knockout stage.
It's hardly unthinkable that they'll succeed or they might not, finding themselves unable to unlock the Ticos' stubborn and organized defense, then discouraged and disinterested against the South American side in a match that no longer matters. The U.S. could be three loses and gone, relegated to a hosting role in the biggest tournament this side of the World Cup.
If that happens, Klinsmann will take the podium and explain it away, sunny rhetoric as usual. He'll infuriate the masses but he won't be wrong. Squint just a little and the future looks as bright as it has in a long time.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.