U.S. progression under Klinsmann in spotlight after Argentina humbling
At major tournaments, what constitutes success can be a moving target. A pre-tournament goal can be reached, but how a team achieves that objective and the manner of its exit can do plenty to alter perceptions.
So it goes for the U.S. men's national team.
In the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. emerged from a difficult group to reach the round of 16, where it was bounced from the tournament in extra time by a talented Belgium side. That was enough for manager Jurgen Klinsmann to declare victory, even though the U.S. was outplayed for the vast majority of that World Cup and stylistically didn't look much different from previous American sides.
The 2016 Copa America Centenario -- pending Saturday's third-place match against Colombia or Chile -- witnessed some similarities, although the team can glean a few more positives. It met Klinsmann's pre-tournament goal of progressing to the semifinals. Excluding CONCACAF Gold Cups, the U.S. won three matches at a major tournament for the first time in its history. (For those pointing to the 1995 Copa America, the U.S.'s penalty shootout win over Mexico in the quarterfinals goes into the books as a draw.)
Along the way, Klinsmann collected encouraging data points with regard to some of his most vexing personnel questions. John Brooks and Geoff Cameron emerged as a stable and consistent center-back pairing. Bobby Wood's play up top means the absence of a Jozy Altidore needn't result in a tactical conundrum for Klinsmann or a wringing of hands for fans. DeAndre Yedlin has staked his claim to the right-back spot for years to come, and Gyasi Zardes more than repaid Klinsmann's faith and patience by delivering some highly effective performances in a wide midfield role.
Clint Dempsey, while very much a known quantity, reinforced his value to the U.S., scoring three goals and benefiting greatly from Klinsmann's decision to send out his team in a 4-4-2.
But impressions -- be they first, last or otherwise -- matter, and the manner of the Americans' start and elimination will be burned into memory. The tournament-opening 2-0 loss to Colombia, and especially the 4-0 semifinal defeat to Argentina on Tuesday, serve as reminders of the gap between the U.S. and the world's best. It was as if the U.S. arrived at Everest base camp in the middle of the night only to wake up the following morning and behold the magnitude of the task that climbing that mountain entails.
To be clear, the U.S. played well in spurts earlier in the tournament, but there were some warning signs. Much like in the last World Cup, the U.S. was outshot by a heavy margin at the Copa America. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the total shots ratio (the percentage of total shots in a game that a team takes) for the U.S. was 36.7, the third-lowest in the tournament, and the lowest of any team that progressed from the group stage. The stat was influenced in part by the fact that the U.S. played a man down for nearly half of the 1-0 win against Paraguay, but looked at another way, only in the 4-0 win over Costa Rica did the U.S. outshoot its opponent.
The U.S.'s task was undermined on a couple of fronts that were evident throughout the tournament: a weakness in defending set pieces and a lack of discipline. The U.S. conceded five set-piece goals over the first five games. One was a penalty against Colombia, and another was an otherworldly free kick from Lionel Messi. Neither of those can be pinned on the whole defense, but the other three were instances where the U.S. was outworked, outthought or both. That doesn't bode well for the World Cup qualifying games to come.
In terms of discipline, the U.S. received two send-offs and 10 yellow cards (not including the two that led to Yedlin's dismissal) during the Copa. The suspensions of Alejandro Bedoya, Wood and Jermaine Jones for the semifinal cut deep, each in their own unique way. Granted, it's unlikely that their availability would have changed the outcome, but at least their presence would have given the U.S. more of a chance. Given the vagaries of CONCACAF refereeing, that penchant for cards is something the U.S. needs to clean up before World Cup qualifying resumes in September.
The suspensions indirectly pointed to the biggest question the U.S. faces as it exits the tournament: the future of the midfield. Both the good and the bad of Jones were on display in this Copa. When he's on, the Americans' ability to carry the game to their opponent increases considerably. His assist on Dempsey's goal against Ecuador was impressive. But his occasional trips to the dark side create some doubt as to his dependability. Yes, his send-off against Ecuador was controversial. The contact he made with Antonio Valencia's face appeared minimal at worst. But it goes back to the adage that if you leave yourself open to the whims of a referee, don't be surprised when he rules against you. Jones should know better than to take that chance.
Michael Bradley deserves some scrutiny as well. Overall, he seemed to benefit from the move to a holding role that he filled for the majority of the tournament, especially in terms of his defense. But following an exceptional performance against Costa Rica, his distribution eroded to the point where he struggled mightily against Argentina. Granted, it was a night when no one played well, and Jones was missed. But Bradley has historically been a player Klinsmann could count on to take care of the ball under pressure. That wasn't the case in either of the two U.S. defeats.
Of course, when it comes to the U.S. midfield, it's evident that Klinsmann has scant confidence -- especially on defense -- in anyone beyond Jones, Bradley, Zardes and Bedoya. Why else start Chris Wondolowski against Argentina instead of moving Zardes up top and having one of Christian Pulisic or Darlington Nagbe fill in? And the problem remains of where the creativity will come from. Finding a left-back to free up Fabian Johnson to move back to midfield would help, and that ought to be a priority in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Pulisic's continued development will necessitate watching, and he remains in the mix, but one wonders what exactly Nagbe's future is. He would seem to have a skill set that would help the U.S., but his limited minutes, even with the team hit hard by suspensions, hints that Klinsmann has lost a bit of faith in him.
So it's worth asking: Just how much progress has been made under Klinsmann? Compared to last summer, when the U.S. exited the Gold Cup in the semifinals, it has been considerable, but that failure back in 2015 also represented perhaps the lowest point the U.S. men's program has experienced since it last failed to qualify for a World Cup back in 1985. If the beginning of this World Cup cycle is the reference point, then the U.S. seems stuck in largely the same place it was before, even with the pluses this Copa revealed. Klinsmann remains heavily reliant on veterans from the 2014 cycle. Of the consistent starters in this tournament, only Zardes and Wood can be considered newcomers.
Yet for Klinsmann, the U.S. performance in the Copa America practically guarantees he will last for the remainder of this cycle, meaning there are two years left to scour the player pool for reinforcements. His ability to introduce a few new faces into the side will determine to what extent the U.S. improves for Russia 2018.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.