Jürgen Klinsmann is still in search of a coherent style for the US men’s national team and, after defeat to Colombia in the Copa America opener, he’s also in search of a point.
A 2-0 defeat to the third-best team in the world – by Fifa’s estimation at least – is hardly a disgrace but the lack of creativity shown by the US on a sweltering evening in Santa Clara was worrying, and will do little to give their fans confidence the hosts can make any real impact on the tournament.
Klinsmann chose not to start the US’s next great hope, the 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund forward Christian Pulisic, who became the team’s youngest ever scorer in the modern era against Bolivia last week. Instead he went for the 4-3-3 line-up that did so well in the second-half of the 4-0 win over Bolivia, with Clint Dempsey, supported by Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes up front, dropping back deep when necessary to launch attacks. At the back they had they had a defence comprised of players hardened from a long season in Europe, with Brad Guzan in goal and DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson in front of him. Colombia’s team bristled with quality: James Rodriguez is one this tournament’s most dangerous players, even after a difficult season with Real Madrid, while Carlos Bacca roamed with intent as a lone striker.
This was the first time the US had hosted a major football tournament since the World Cup in 1994. In that tournament, they beat Colombia 2-1, thanks in part to an infamous own goal by Andres Escobar. It was a result that helped propel the US into the second round of the World Cup, and boost the popularity of the game as it attempted to gain a foothold in the States. The opening stages of Friday’s game showed just the confidence the US has gained as a football nation in the 22 years since: Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron attempting – and executing – an audacious pirouette to clear a Colombian attack on the edge of his own area.
But the US were shocked a few minutes later. A Colombia corner was floated into the area and a completely unmarked Cristian Zapata had all the time in the world to send a low shot past Brad Guzan. It was Cameron who had lost Zapata in the crowd: pirouettes are all very well, but marking your opponent can be useful, too. A ragged few minutes for the US ensued – and Brad Guzan was nearly caught out when he rushed out to clear a ball on the edge of his area. This time Cameron did his job well, intervening before Bacca could exploit the opening.
It was 15 minutes before the US had their first attack of note: a free kick from Dempsey 35 yards out cannoned into the wall. As the half wore on it was set pieces that looked most likely to offer an equalizer for the States: Michael Bradley’s set piece found Jermaine Jones unmarked, but the angle was tough and his header drifted wide. Other than that Colombia were barely troubled. Edwin Cardona’s skill in particular caused the hosts problems: in the 20th minute he flicked the ball over his head before forcing Guzan into a good save, low down to the keeper’s left.
The US had a counter to Colombia’s skill in the disruptive presence of Michael Bradley. Twice in the first half, fine interceptions from the USA captain near the halfway line led to attacks, most notably in the 37th minute when Dempsey broke free and shot narrowly wide from distance. But Bradley was increasingly playing like a man on the edge: and he lost the ball carelessly in his own half as the break approached. From the ensuing Colombia attack, a Farid Diaz cross cannoned off Yedlin’s arm and Roberto Garcia, the Mexican referee gave the penalty. It was the correct decision, Yedlin had turned his back to the ball and raised his arm. Rodriguez sauntered up to the spot with all the langour of a man on a Sunday afternoon stroll, and stroked the ball past Guzan. The US had actually had 61% of the possession in the first half, but had neither the creativity nor the guile to do anything with it – and had failed to register a single shot on target.
The US now had 45 minutes to chase the game on an evening when the heat of the day still lingered. Colombia thought they had a penalty to start the second half: once again it was Cardona who caused problems for the US defence. His rifled shot was too much for Guzan, who spilled the ball at the feet of Bacca. The Colombian was felled by Cameron as his team-mates shouted for a spot-kick, but this time the referee ruled in favour of the hosts. The difference between the two teams was captured in the next few minutes as Colombia stroked the ball around the park to a series of cheers from their fans: their fun was ended by an agricultural challenge from Alejandro Bedoya. He was given a yellow card but at least the US had stopped a humiliating few minutes.
Maybe a spark of anger was what the US needed, and they finally had their first shot on target in the 59th minute. Dempsey rose to meet a corner and his his header was scrambled off the line. Minutes later the same player’s free-kick forced David Ospina into a good save. On 65 minutes, and impatience growing among the home fans, Klinsmann made a change: Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe replaced Bobby Wood and Jermaine Jones.
Both substitutes are fine talents, but they could not make any impression on the opposing defence, and Klinsmann probably should have brought them on earlier to allow – their team-mates had certainly done little to justify their place on the field. As the game wound down, Bradley began to take his frustration out on Rodriguez: the Colombia captain landed awkwardly on his shoulder after one heavy challenge, and he was substituted. It said much about the game that the loss of their best player did little harm to Colombia: Bacca stormed through on goal a few minutes later and his shot shuddered the crossbar with Guzan beaten.
There was precious little threat from the US for the rest of the game, and if Klinsmann had a plan to get his team back into the game it was unclear. The best chances for the US still came from set-pieces: Bradley had a shot from distance late on, but other than that Colombia were able to secure the win with a minimum of fuss.
Costa Rica are next up for the US. Los Ticos’ last major tournament was the 2014 World Cup, where they reached the quarter-finals without losing a match in regulation. Another problem for Klinsmann to ponder
This article was written by Tom Lutz at Levi's Stadium, for theguardian.com on Saturday 4th June 2016 05.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010