Tuesday’s Copa America Centenario semifinal was certainly not a pleasing contest to watch, if you were pulling for the Americans. But what can the U.S. men’s national soccer team, and observers of the team, take away from the loss?
A few things, actually.
1. The United States still struggles to possess the ball against the top teams
This isn’t surprising, of course. Most international teams in the world struggle in possession against the best teams, a group that certainly includes the No. 1-ranked team in the world. Argentina made the Americans uncomfortable all night, thoroughly dominating possession, passing, and shot creation:
Argentina advances to its 4th Copa América final in past 5 tournaments. A look at how convincing tonight's win was pic.twitter.com/Y7oNZkiHpZ
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 22, 2016
That’s a big ol’ zero for the USA in terms of shots. Zero shots! They simply couldn’t move the ball into threatening positions with any kind of consistency, due to a variety of factors. Chief among them being Argentina maintains stifling pressure, and the American instinct too often remains to just boot it upfield and hope for the best.
Possession is anathema for the USMNT, and that remains a mystery. They’re not unfamiliar with that style of soccer, as it’s what’s required to beat some of the more bunker-happy teams in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Some players seem more comfortable in possession than others, but a few who normally fit that bill (captain Michael Bradley included) had off nights at a bad time. But some of that can be explained by the next item.
2. Jurgen Klinsmann just can’t get out of his own way
For a coach who preaches a need to play without fear, regardless of the skill of the opponent or the size of the stage, Klinsmann too often falls back into the safety zone. How else do you explain the inclusion of Chris Wondolowski on the 23-man roster for the tournament, much less in the starting lineup of the semifinal?
Wondolowski (which my phone auto-corrects to “Wondo low-light”, and I’m not kidding) is best-known among USMNT fans for flubbing a golden chance to win the Belgium match at the 2014 World Cup. But reducing his contributions to just that miss is unfair. After all, he’s blown plenty of other chances too; there’s no need to zero in on just that one. He’s the sort of player the USMNT was forced to roll out for years, with no viable forward options: the MLS stalwart, not fast, not big, not technically-gifted, but the best option we had. (Pat Noonan got 15 caps.)
But now, look at the forward depth-chart. Names like Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey, Aron Johansson (when healthy), Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes (when played at forward), Jozy Altidore (also when healthy), and more all sit ahead of him on any depth chart that includes talent. And yet there he was last night, shoehorned into a lineup that called for pace up top to try to exploit Argentina on the counter, taking up a spot on the team sheet that may have been better suited for, say, anyone or anything else. His horrid giveaway and subsequent panic/revenge foul on Messi set up Messi’s gorgeous free kick you’ve likely seen countless times already.
Here's the Wondo sequence that led to the Messi free kick. Hard to make a bigger mess of the situation. pic.twitter.com/1zIume5UE3
— Jay Rigdon (@jayrigdon5) June 22, 2016
But it wasn’t just the inclusion of Wondo, at the expense of a much more dynamic, promising player like Christian Pulisic or Darlington Nagbe. The formation itself struggled all night, as Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman were consistently outmanned and outmatched in midfield. Jurgen stumbled upon the 4-4-2 in a moment of need, but choosing to stick with it at the expense of, say, Nagbe in midfield to help maintain possession and even the odds, or Pulisic on the wing to inject some pace and serve as a pressure release, was a very poor tactical decision.
Had he stuck with the 4-4-2 and moved Zardes up front to use his pace and athleticism, allowing for the insertion of Pulisic on the wing (the lineup with which Klinsmann started the second half), perhaps the United States would have found more room to operate, more ways to relieve Argentina’s constant pressure. But instead of thinking outside his norm, he went with the old veterans, much like he did in last fall’s Confederation’s Cup playoff loss to Mexico. This time, it somehow worked even less effectively.
"We'll play 2 vs 3 in the middle, play a slow guy on the outside, and two slow guys up top, including one who's not good."
— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) June 22, 2016
A team like Argentina is too talented to be wholly shut down by the United States. They were always going to get chances, regardless of the conservative nature of the lineup. But when you start a conservative, defensive group, and get punctured for an early goal, the entire game plan is in shambles from the get-go. I’ve never understood why, against top-level teams like Argentina, Klinsmann (or Bob Bradley before him) doesn’t just roll out an aggressive, play-making lineup, even if it means choosing youth over veteran experience.
The USMNT is probably going to give up a few goals against teams this good, regardless of who Jurgen puts on the field. Might as well try to give yourself a fighting chance to score on them, too.
3. This does not negate the entire tournament!
It’s always tempting to throw out the good with the bad after a result like this, but the United States did make progress. Pulisic looked very solid in his limited minutes. Hopefully, he’s in line for a long runout in Saturday’s third-place match. Dempsey proved he still has tread on the tires, Bobby Wood looks like a threatening forward, and John Brooks and Geoff Cameron each played strong tournaments in the center of defense.
The three-game winning streak — over Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador — was not a mirage. Those teams aren’t at the level of Colombia or Argentina, but they’re still very, very good, and considering each was essentially a must-win game, the United States acquitted themselves well. Reaching the semifinal was an admirable goal, and they did it. On another day, with another lineup, and Argentina not capitalizing on half their shots on goal, perhaps things end up differently.
Progress isn’t linear, and just because this game looked like a regression does not mean all prior progress was lost. These top South American teams are among the best in the world. Indeed, if the United States faces Chile on Saturday, they’ll have played competitive matches against three of the top seven ranked teams in the world, according to the ELO rankings. (If you go by FIFA’s official rankings, it’s actually three of the top five in the world, and the three best teams in South America.) If they end up with a rematch vs. Colombia, that’ll be three matches against two teams at that same level.
This is invaluable experience for the United States, which is missing out on next summer’s Confederation’s Cup. Competitive matches against full-strength (or almost full-strength) teams of this caliber do not come often. This has been a good run, and would have been regardless of last night’s outcome.
Hopefully the team, and especially the coach, learn the right lessons from the experience, and implement positive changes going forward with an eye on the 2018 World Cup.