On the eve of the Copa America Centenario Jurgen Klinsmann made it extremely clear that the host nation’s aims are anything but obvious.
The USA face Colombia in the San Francisco bay on Friday night, kicking off the tournament and uncertainty is the order of the day on many counts.
It has shrouded his five-year tenure as head coach of the US national team and little has changed ahead of this event as a blend of fear and optimism washes around the ‘USMNT’.
USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has sent out mixed messages ahead of the tournament
Klinsmann has changed his side’s ambitions from a last four spot to simply making it through the group
Members of the USA football team are put through their paces ahead of Friday night’s opener in California
Are the USA much better off now than when he took over in 2011? The Copa America is a chance to find an answer to that question.
About 48 miles separates San Jose’s Levi’s Stadium, where the tournament begins, from the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Thick, low fog rolls into the city and obscures that remarkable construction and it is hard to ignore parallels between the occasional pillars of metal left visible and Klinsmann’s work.
Take, for example, Klinsmann’s claim the USA should reach the latter stages of the tournament. ‘The goal really is the final four,’ he said, a little over a week ago.
But on Thursday afternoon he moved the goalposts. ‘We want to get through the group stage, which is not easy,’ he said. ‘We understand who we’re playing against. For us, the expectations are that we want to grow as a soccer nation.’
Of course, nothing is going to change overnight, but things seemed to be going downhill since the 2014 World Cup, in which most praised them for their displays.
The team are currently behind Trinidad and Tobago in their World Cup 2018 qualifying group and were disappointing in last year’s Gold Cup, finishing fourth. What’s more, they didn’t even play good football — bad results and bad football is not a good mixture.
The demands of the fans and media in the States generally seem to be to reach the semi-finals of this Copa America, but partly due to Klinsmann’s haywire decision making and selections and also because they have been drawn in an intriguing group, along with Colombia, Paraguay and Costa Rica, nobody knows what will happen.
Klinsmann has warned his players to expect a tough test in trying to make it through Group A
The opening game of the Copa America Centenario will be played at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara
GROUP A FIXTURES
USA v Colombia, June 4, Santa Clara, CA, 2.30am
Costa Rica v Paraguay, June 4, Orlando, FL 10pm
USA v Costa Rica, June 8, Chicago, IL, 1am
Colombia v Paraguay, June 8, Pasadena, CA, 3.30am
USA v Paraguay, June 12, Philadelphia, PA, 12am
Colombia v Costa Rica, June 12, Houston, TX, 2am
Some are predicting abject failure, not even making it out of Group A, others believe they will get as far as the semis.
Optimism has run wild in recent days, but before the forecast was negative, because of those bad results.
US fans have grown excited after pre-tournament friendly wins over Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Bolivia, particularly because exciting, young players like Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood and Darlington Nagbe have impressed.
Which brings us to another puzzle the coach couldn’t clear up before the opening duel with Colombia.
There is a lot of pressure on him to start Borussia Dortmund’s Pulisic, 17, even though he has just a handful of international minutes going into the tournament. Likewise Nagbe, 25, of the Portland Timbers. Both are exciting but unpredictable. They could give the USA the X-factor to unlock opponents, or could make the mistake that gives the ball away and sinks them.
‘Young players can only grow if you give them time to play. If they don’t get those opportunities to come in and get minutes, they will never grow,’ he said, implying fans will get what they want.
But the fog rolled in again shortly afterwards. ‘This [Copa America] is about now,’ he added.
‘It’s not about what’s in two years [Russia 2018]. Whoever we think will get the best job done for the team will play. We are not giving away any kind of favours here. This is about winning.’
Real Madrid playmaker James Rodriguez, pictured lifting the Champions League trophy, will start the match
Chelsea winger Juan Cuadrado (right, who was on loan at Juventus last season) will be hoping to impress
USA (4-3-3): Guzan; Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Johnson; Bradley, Jones, Bedoya; Zardes, Dempsey, Wood
Colombia (4-2-3-1): Ospina; Arias, Murillo, Zapata, Diaz; Torres, S Perez; Cuadrado, James, Cardona; Bacca
One problem that does seem to have been settled is the team’s formation, with a 4-3-3 working well recently and likely to be continued.
What may help the USA in their quest is that Colombia are in a semi-transition period too. Jose Pekerman has cleared out many of the squad’s stalwarts and injected youth into the side.
Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez and Co are out. The likes of Marlos Moreno are in. The striker, 19, plays for Atletico Nacional and is one of the hottest talents in South American football.
‘We were doing well,’ said Colombia coach Jose Pekerman. ‘But equally, we had to continue the search for players for a good future, or even better.’
After their stagnant displays at the Copa America 2015, the fresh vibe could breathe new life into Los Cafeteros. Carlos Bacca will lead the line, with James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Edwin Cardona in support, an attacking midfield trio that offer a little bit of everything.
The dangerous presence is likely to ward Klinsmann away from picking the younger, exciting players, instead opting for a reliable, durable midfield unit of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya.
Carlos Bacca will lead the line for Colombia in the absence of Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez
Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina (right) and Colombia coach Jose Pekerman (left) address the media
‘We know how fast they can transition from defence into attack,’ said Klinsmann. ‘They can exploit space within a couple of seconds, snap, and get four or five players forward. That’s why they’re so dangerous.’
The USA may have to put in some tough tackles to stop their opponents, but Pekerman was unperturbed by suggestions that the officials may be softer on the home team.
‘We always believe in justice, that there will be no problems, and we think about the sporting side and competing in the best way — that there will be no external factors that have an influence,’ he said.
The clash is 3,000 tickets short of selling out, but even though the game is in the US, Colombian fans — who travel well and helped light up last year’s tournament in Chile — may match or even outnumber the hosts’ support.
Vibrant yellow and red Colombia shirts have been showing up in all kinds of places, from Fisherman’s Wharf to Alcatraz Island, to the Golden Gate Bridge.
If there was ever a time for the fog to shift away, Klinsmann needs it to be now. His team is ‘very hungry’, according to the coach. The table is set — but will they eat?