U.S. roundtable: Is Jurgen Klinsmann under pressure? Is the squad right?
The Copa America kicks off on Friday as hosts U.S. play Colombia in Santa Clara, California. Ahead of the festivities, we asked ESPN FC's USMNT writers and experts to answer some burning questions about the U.S. national team, Copa aspirations and how results might reflect upon Jurgen Klinsmann.
1. Is Jurgen Klinsmann realistic to expect the U.S. to reach the semifinals?
Jeff Carlisle: The semis seem a round too far in my opinion. Yes, the U.S. looks to be on the upswing thanks to the emergence of players like Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic. The midfield looks have better balance that its had in some time, especially with Michael Bradley now occupying the No. 6 spot. But if form holds, the U.S. will likely face Brazil in the quarterfinals, an opponent still very much a cut above in all facets.
Doug McIntyre: Klinsmann said the final four is the goal, which is not the same as saying it's expected. But it's possible. The U.S. has reached a Copa semi before, in 1995. And unlike at a World Cup, they only need one knockout win to get there. The key for me is the first round. If the Americans can win Group A, they'll probably avoid Brazil in the quarterfinal. That would increase their odds significantly.
Jason Davis: I'm not sure if it matters whether Klinsmann's target for his team is "realistic" or not or even that the head coach himself actually holds that expectation. Considering that the event is on American soil and Klinsmann has talked about an achieving mentality, the semifinals of a 16-team tournament is the lowest bar that should be set. It means progressing from the group and winning one knockout round match; based on their recent play, that seems like a very unlikely turn of events but Klinsmann is right to project confidence with his statements.
Graham Parker: It's realistic to expect the host nation in a regional competition to get out of the group. It ought to be realistic to expect that one of the top two teams in its half of that region would aim for a semifinal place but given the inconsistent form of the U.S. since the World Cup, let's call it a realistic aspiration.
Noah Davis: It feels like a lofty goal, mostly because the U.S. likely needs to win its group to avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals, and I'm not sure the team can finish ahead of Colombia. But I like the ambition and I like that Klinsmann is very publicly stating a target. Should the Americans fall short of the semifinals, it will be interesting to see how Klinsmann handles the failure.
2. Which players have the most to prove this summer, and why?
Carlisle: I think John Brooks has the most to prove out of anyone on the roster. His physical gifts aren't in question, though he isn't as dominant in the air for someone who is 6-foot-4. But his biggest problem has been his tendency to lose concentration in critical moments. Brooks has been given plenty of chances by Klinsmann and not always delivered. If the U.S. is to progress deep into the tournament, he must step up in a big way.
McIntyre: With Jozy Altidore hamstrung yet again, Wood has to demonstrate that he's ready to lead the forward line. Brooks has to prove that he can stay healthy and be the dominant center-back for the national team that he is for Hertha Berlin. Brad Guzan has to show he's worthy of the starting keeper job Klinsmann gave him over Tim Howard. Finally, Clint Dempsey must demonstrate he can still produce at the highest level.
J. Davis: Wood jumps immediately to mind, since he'll be stepping into a starting role due to Altidore's absence. We've seen flashes of his talent but he's never been asked to be a consistent part of the U.S. attack. DeAndre Yedlin also has something to prove, namely that the defensive strides he made in England will carry over to meaningful games for the U.S. so the right-back spot can become a position of strength.
Parker: Guzan has had the kind of year with Aston Villa that might prompt him to want to remind everybody why he's an international goalkeeper. But it's also time to see if Gyasi Zardes can repay Klinsmann's extended faith in him, and perhaps for Nagbe to suggest he can be more than a mercurial supersub. Also, let's see how much Wood can cement his place.
N. Davis: Brooks must prove he's the center-back of the next 10 years (until Cameron Carter-Vickers comes calling). Nagbe must show he deserves a starting spot. Wood can become a first-choice forward with a strong showing at the Copa America. Dempsey can prove that there is enough gas in the tank to get him to Russia. Finally, Pulisic could send U.S. supporters into the stratosphere if he's the truth -- how much fun would that be?
3. Did Klinsmann pick the right squad? What changes would you have made if you were coach?
Carlisle: I think one area where his choices could be questioned is full-back, and even that is more about his reserves at those spots. Michael Orozco is versatile but barely saw the field for Tijuana this season. Meanwhile, you had a guy like Eric Lichaj, who has been a mainstay for Nottingham Forest yet can't seem to get much attention (though he did make the 40-man preliminary roster).
As for the clamor surrounding Jordan Morris, he's a player destined for the center of the field, not the wing, and with the U.S. now operating out of a 4-3-3, I question how much playing time he would have gotten at the Copa. He's barely a dozen games into his pro career. Better for him to remain with his club and continue to develop.
McIntyre: I might have taken Morris because I think his power and speed could have been useful off the bench. I would probably have taken Omar Gonzalez over Orozco. And Tim Ream or Lichaj would have been my injury replacement for Timmy Chandler. I don't think Edgar Castillo, who took Chandler's spot, is able to defend consistently against top international teams.
J. Davis: Any issues I have with Klinsmann's squad are relatively small, though the choice of Chris Wondolowski over Morris is a strange one. Wondolowski is an excellent goalscorer in MLS and has buckets of experience that Morris lacks but at a one-off tournament and a roster already featuring a number of younger players, choosing the San Jose forward over a player Klinsmann identified out of college makes little sense.
The decision to leave Gonzalez out is a head-scratcher as well; despite the center-back's move to Mexico and his success with Pachuca, Klinsmann chose to bring the out-of-form Orozco. More than the impact on the roster, the Gonzalez omission is curious due to the message it sends.
Parker: If anything, going through the 23-man squad you must try and be a little more understanding about Klinsmann's endless tinkering given the current crop he's trying to transform. For offering guile and awareness of team shape in midfield, I'd have brought Sacha Kljestan; as for Morris and Matt Miazga, I'd have made sure the U.S. qualified for the Olympics so they could continue to develop. I believe that was the plan, anyway ...
N. Davis: Mostly. If it's my team, I'm probably taking Morris and Ream or Lichaj instead of Wondolowski and Orozco but I don't feel all that strongly about those choices. The one place I think he erred is goalkeeper. If you're going to take Howard, you should start Tim Howard. If not, move on. Howard is a good soldier and won't cause problems but having him as a number two is a bad message to send. (Also: If you're a U.S. player, do not take a sabbatical.)
4. Should the Copa America be considered a referendum on Klinsmann or is it simply about getting good results?
Carlisle: I think the only way Klinsmann is put under any pressure is if the U.S. flames out with three heavy defeats. If the Americans progress to the knockout stages, I think the tournament will be looked upon as a success. Otherwise, World Cup qualifying remains the ultimate referendum and after the stumble in Guatemala City, the U.S. is now on course to reach the Hexagonal.
McIntyre: If the Americans bomb out in the first round of the Copa on the back of a dismal 2015, questions about Klinsmann's future must be asked. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think at the very least they'll survive the group.
J. Davis: Klinsmann should be judged by every tournament performance and by the standards he set for himself. His mandate upon getting the job (and then being handed the technical director role shortly thereafter) was to advance the program in terms of both results and style of play. Tough groups aren't an excuse, not when the rhetoric doesn't match the approach.
Parker: He's become so adept at endlessly deferring a verdict on him, steering the conversation toward process, that it's hard to believe this will be a referendum; that said, failure to get out of the group might make it one.
N. Davis: All games should be a referendum on Klinsmann. The pragmatist in me says that in a tournament as big as a Copa America, the only thing that matters is results. Sure, we'd all like to see the U.S. play pretty, attacking and possession-based soccer, but the more important thing is to get results. Good results are the first thing Klinsmann should be judged on. This is one of the most talented U.S. teams ever, playing at home. If the coach can't find some points, that's a problem.
5. Pick your starting XI for the game vs. Colombia. That's it.
Carlisle: (4-3-3) Guzan; Yedlin, Brooks, Cameron, Johnson; Jones, Bradley, Bedoya; Wood, Dempsey, Zardes
McIntyre: (4-3-3): Guzan; Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Johnson; Bedoya, Bradley, Jones; Wood, Dempsey, Zardes
J. Davis: (4-3-3) Guzan; Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Johnson; Jones, Bradley, Nagbe; Pulisic, Wood, Bedoya
Parker: (4-3-3) Guzan; Johnson, Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin; Jones,Beckerman, Bradley; Wood, Dempsey, Zardes
N. Davis: (4-3-3) Howard; Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Johnson; Bedoya, Bradley, Jones; Nagbe, Dempsey, Wood