SANTA CLARA, Calif. – For all the anguish created by Friday’s loss to Colombia, the U.S. national team’s task in the Copa América Centenario group stage remains unchanged: Collect at least four points and a pass to the quarterfinals.
The margin of error, however, has narrowed.
“We have no choice,” captain Michael Bradley said, “but to respond and come back in a big way.”
Jurgen Klinsmann’s gang will now turn its attention to a familiar foe, Costa Rica, on Tuesday in Chicago, then Paraguay next Saturday in Philadelphia. Two teams from Group A will advance to the knockout stage of the 16-nation tournament taking place at 10 U.S. venues over three weeks.
As they boarded the charter to the Windy City on Saturday, the U.S. players could not escape the fact they were outclassed in the opener. It was a disappointing launch to a tournament with the tallest challenges and brightest spotlight outside of the World Cup.
Are they capable of recovery?
Before this [Colombia] game even started, we always knew the second game of the tournament was going to be just as big as the first. So in that sense, nothing changes. We know Tuesday is a huge game.”
-Brad Guzan, U.S. Copa América team goalkeeper
Sure, but the opening act did not inspire confidence. True, the first match was the most difficult, against a Colombia team ranked third in the world — the United States is No. 31 — and superior at most every position.
Klinsmann has harped for months about the importance and possibilities of participating in Copa América, a South American party that expanded north in celebration of its 100th birthday. Toiling in CONCACAF, the region encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean, provides only so many challenges.
Friday’s match demonstrated the gulf between the United States and Latin American elite.
Cristian Zapata’s volleyed goal off a corner kick took less than eight minutes. DeAndre Yedlin’s handball led to James Rodriguez’s penalty kick just before intermission, and even with another half ahead, the U.S. team seemed all but done.
After the break, Colombia toyed with the United States for about 15 minutes, collaborating as if it were on a corporate team-building retreat.
Powerless in possession against a compact and organized foe, the U.S. players mustered their best comeback hopes on set pieces: Clint Dempsey’s header off a corner kick was cleared off the goal line by a defender and his bending free kick was punched aside in spectacular fashion by the soaring David Ospina.
Afterward, Klinsmann tried putting on a spin on the proceedings by saying repeatedly that his team had been on level terms with Colombia.
“There was no difference,” he said, “besides the two goals.”
Most of the near-capacity crowd at Levi’s Stadium and a global TV audience would probably disagree about the difference. Aside from Dempsey’s efforts, the U.S. players offered little of substance. Beyond their technical limitations, they lacked the imagination to solve problems or improvise.
The degree of difficulty is not as high against CONCACAF teams, such as Costa Rica. But the Ticos were World Cup quarterfinalists two summers ago and, even without injured Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, they possess the attacking skills and experience capable of crushing the U.S. team’s quarterfinal hopes.
The U.S. players find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Since Klinsmann was appointed in the summer of 2011, they have taken part in four international tournaments with first-round groups. This was the first in which they lost their opener.
They won the first match in each of two CONCACAF Gold Cups (Belize and Honduras), as well as the 2014 World Cup (Ghana).
The last setback in the first group game came at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa (3-1 to Italy). That year, the United States also lost its second match (3-0 to Brazil) but, in the finale, defeated Egypt and benefitted from other results to slip into the knockout stage.
In other words, Friday’s defeat was not a death knell. The quality of play, however, will have to rise.
“Before this [Colombia] game even started, we always knew the second game of the tournament was going to be just as big as the first,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “So in that sense, nothing changes. We know Tuesday is a huge game.”