With the Copa America Centenario being played in the United States this upcoming summer, there is an opportunity for the United States men’s national team to show its prowess on a grand stage. At the draw last week, the United States was placed into Group A, and then anxiously awaited its opponents.
What the USMNT did not expect was getting the toughest team in CONCACAF, an up-and-coming South American team and a gritty CONMEBOL side that is steadily improving. We’re talking about Costa Rica, Colombia and Paraguay.
Once again, the United States will enter a tournament by playing in “The Group of Death.” A similar scenario unfolded back in 2014, as the Brazil World Cup draw was far from fair to Jürgen Klinsmann’s side. The Yanks’ group contained traditional powerhouses in Germany, Portugal and Ghana — the team that eliminated the United States from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The United States was projected to be eliminated in the group stage but stunned the world by beating Ghana, drawing Portugal and only losing 1-0 in a hard-fought game against eventual World Cup champions Germany.
Even in the knockout rounds, despite losing to Belgium, the United States shut out one of the most potent teams in the world for 90 minutes, only to lose 2-1 in extra time.
The larger point is that fans, players and coaches have all been here before. No matter how many times American soccer fans hold their breaths, it almost seems inevitable that the United States will get the toughest possible matchups in the group stage.
But you know what? It’s fine. Regardless of whom the United States plays in big tournaments, the team rises to the occasion and punches far above its weight.
And why is that?
Because American soccer is no longer a joke. It is becoming one of the most powerful federations in the world, and it is time to be taken seriously. The youth system in the United States is promising, and if it can keep churning out players such as 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, Matt Miazga, Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin, one can only wonder what the future holds.
Youth is slowly entering the fold, and past tournaments show an older direction can be tumultuous.
Back at the 2014 World Cup, experience was what led the United States through the group stage, but soon the aging players looked lethargic and were boring to watch. When younger talent entered various games, there was an immediate injection of pace and energy.
It was players such as Yedlin and John Brooks who gave the United States the chance to win games many believed they could not. Contrastingly, it was experienced players such as Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron and Brad Davis who made mental mistakes that cost precious points.
In 2015 summer friendlies against the Netherlands and Germany, two of the world’s top teams, the United States hit the pitch with youth-filled squads and dispatched the powerhouses on the road in comeback fashions.
But then Klinsmann opted for experience over youth at the 2015 Gold Cup, and the United States was embarrassingly bounced from the tournament by Jamaica. Should Klinsmann have played younger, fresher players, it’s extremely likely his team would have won the biennial competition.
With so many young players kept under wraps, this summer’s Copa America could be the chance for the United States to surprise the world. Expect the previously unknown players to announce themselves to the world too. I have consistently been a firm believer in an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. But something clearly isn’t working with the experienced players, so it’s time to usher in a new era for the USMNT.
So what will happen this summer?
Certainly, the United States will feel more pressure to make a splash, especially hosting one of the biggest tournaments in the world. But when choosing a squad, there cannot be any sentiment to old-timers. Instead, the best players, regardless of age, must play.
If that is to happen, the United States will go far in this tournament of giants. As a matter of fact, the United States is overall better than Paraguay, has a better crop of players than Costa Rica and can stun Colombia.
Although Colombia has world-class players such as James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Bacca, they can be beaten. Their respective reputations will only get them so far, and the United States loves a challenge.
As for playing teams such as Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, that can’t be a thought right now. Neither of those three are in Group A, and that means the United States escaped the three best teams in the competition.
So when the United States advances to the knockout round in Copa America with either Brazil or Ecuador on the horizon, bring it on. The United States has been in much tougher groups than this one and has fought through each one when nobody thought it was possible. And again, the Americans will advance and shock the world.
It’s nothing new and just business as usual for the United States. With a youthful squad, the Yanks shall prosper.