The Copa América Centenario ended as it began for the US, with defeat to Colombia. Still, some of the fight and flair that was so glaringly absent in the semi-final loss to Argentina was back for Saturday’s third-place match, allowing the Americans to restore some self-respect and optimism.
If the US did not earn a virtual bronze, at least they were not leaden. In the Americans’ fourth appearance in South America’s international showcase, fourth place equals 1995’s best-ever Copa finish. Third is Colombia’s best performance since they won the Copa in 2001, even if Jose Pekerman’s team never quite seemed to reach their potential.
“After six weeks being on the road to pull up a performance like that in a meaningless third-place game in a certain way,” USA coach Jürgen Klinsmann said. “I think they deserve a huge, huge compliment.”
Third-place playoffs, even the entertaining ones, are inevitably the runts of a tournament’s litter, existing mainly to make money and help alleviate the structural problem with any competition of this kind: as it reaches its climax the gap between matches grows and slows the momentum built during the all-you-can-watch-buffet group stages.
They are the kind of occasion where a coach would give a fringe player such as Chris Wondolowski a run-out – except that Klinsmann bizarrely tried that in the semi-final and it did not work so well.
“We didn’t get played off the pitch tonight,” USA defender Geoff Cameron said. “If anything, I thought we dominated the game. I thought we had a lot of chances that we just didn’t put in.”
If reaching the last four in a tournament with Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay would have been viewed as mission accomplished for the US beforehand, their 4-0 loss to Argentina in Houston on Tuesday was so comprehensive that it served as a gruesome reality check on American ambitions of becoming a team capable of beating the world’s best.
An indicator, perhaps, both of a limited talent pool and a coach incapable of delivering the kind of inspirational and tactical brilliance that sees a team morph into much more than the sum of its parts during a mad, magical, summer.
Klinsmann’s side looked good in periods on Saturday, but since this was just a third-place playoff, it’s tempting to ask: so what? And: why didn’t you play like this last time?
In response to the latter question, not conceding an early goal, not facing Lionel Messi, not getting the tactics wrong and seeing important cogs return from suspension certainly helped.
Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood were back, while Matt Besler and Michael Orozco came into the defence and Tim Howard replaced Brad Guzan in goal.
Wood was up front with Clint Dempsey, appeasing those who believe the US have looked most effective in a 4-4-2 but frustrating anybody hoping that with the pressure off, Christian Pulisic or Darlington Nagbe would get the valuable experience of a start against a strong opponent.
The 17-year-old Pulisic did come off the bench, though not until the 74th minute. Nagbe replaced Michael Bradley for the final 11 minutes.
This match was a reprise of the Copa’s first fixture, which the US lost 2-0 in muted fashion in Santa Clara three weeks ago but rebounded to top Group A with wins over Costa Rica and Paraguay followed by a quarter-final victory over Ecuador.
Then came Argentina, the footballing equivalent of watching eleven wizards casting spells as they tap-danced around some tattered beige furniture.
Colombia lost 2-0 to Chile in a a rain-delayed semi-final in Chicago on Wednesday that turned into the dampest of squibs. The sides waited more than two hours to start the second half, and, seeking to recover a two-goal deficit, Colombia had a strong penalty appeal rejected then Carlos Sanchez harshly sent off.
In the warm-up act for Sunday’s final in New Jersey, Wood had an attempt on goal at the University of Phoenix Stadium with less than four minutes gone. It was wayward, but at least this weak effort was a statistical improvement on the Argentina game. Then the US did not muster so much as one shot.
Saturday’s was an enjoyably open contest, as well as a competitive one – there were six bookings and two red cards – in front of a meagre crowd in Glendale. Colombia’s winner came after half an hour via a nicely worked move. With a lofted pass over the defence that had echoes of Messi’s set-up for Argentina’s first in Houston, James Rodriguez chipped the ball over Bedoya for the onrushing Santiago Arias, who headed across the six yard box for Carlos Bacca, who evaded DeAndre Yedlin and messily stabbed into the net from close range.
Despite the cumbersome finish, the goal was a beguiling blend of creativity and physicality – speed of thought and speed of foot.
The US responded brightly and seven minutes before the break Dempsey slid in Wood, who delayed his shot because Bedoya ran across his path. It was a rare lack of understanding for the US up front on a night when Wood underlined how much his busy, direct approach was missed against Argentina.
With 51 minutes gone, Dempsey’s superb free kick attempt brought an equally impressive save from Ospina – who also memorably denied the Seattle Sounders forward from a set piece in the group game.
Colombia have failed to reach their attacking potential in this Copa, but they almost scored a second outstanding goal of the game after an hour when Juan Cuadrado’s chip from the edge of the area beat Howard but hit the underside of the crossbar. At the other end, barely a minute later, Wood bashed Ospina’s left-hand post.
As the US pushed for an equaliser they left gaps at the back and Howard saved from Edwin Cardona, while James squandered a good opportunity.
Crassness rather than chances defined the closing stages, though, as Orozco and Arias tangled in injury time, the Tijuana defender pushed the PSV Eindhoven man in the face and both were sent off. It was a sour end to an engrossing spectacle.
“It was just one of those days,” Yedlin said. “We got into the box, just nothing was falling for us. So you take the positives from this game and there were certainly a lot of them. I thought for how aggressive we were being offensively we actually defended pretty well. I thought we pressed pretty well and I thought overall it was a good team performance.”
This article was written by Tom Dart, for theguardian.com on Sunday 26th June 2016 03.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010