Entering Friday’s Copa America kickoff, Colombia enters as one of the competition’s favorites. Los Cafateros enter the tournament ranked third in the world, and are pegged my many to emerge as the top team in Group A.
Set to face Colombia on Friday, the U.S. Men’s National Team knows the caliber of opponent in front of them, but they are also fully confident in their ability to step onto the field and beat them straight up.
The USMNT’s road through the group stages begins on Friday night at Levi’s Stadium with one of the most difficult opponents in the tournament. In Colombia, the USMNT faces a team full of attacking talent like James Rodriguez and Carlos Bacca. As evidenced by their performances at the 2014 World Cup, Los Cafateros are deservedly among the world’s elite, a position the USMNT hopes to someday occupy.
The path towards that recognition begins with the Copa America opener, the start of a tournament that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has repeatedly called a once-in-a-lifetime event. On Friday, the USMNT expects to be much more than fodder for another deep Colombia run. Rather, they expect to step right up to show that they are just as good, if not better, than any team in the tournament.
“Obviously, when you face a team with their talent, with what they have up front, with James, with Bacca, with (Juan) Cuadrado, with (Edwin) Cardona, they’re all players that are all difference makers,” Klinsmann said. “They’re also beatable. Every team as its strength and weaknesses. All of the teams out there have that. I think we learned a lot over the past couple of years with playing big teams and to come up with solutions against big teams, whether it’s overseas in Europe or somewhere else. We manage to get very, very good results. We respect them a lot.”
“It’s a very good team,” added captain Michael Bradley. “It’s an interesting blend of guys who are good with the ball and talented technically, but also athletically and physically very strong. We know the first game of every tournament is so important in terms of finding a way to come away with points. We’ll approach this game as if it were the only game we’re playing this tournament and be ready to do everything we can to come away with a positive result.”
The USMNT’s self-belief stems from their own performances. Entering the Copa America, the USMNT toppled three straight teams in a series of confidence-boosting friendlies, including fellow participants Ecuador and Bolivia. New faces shined, while old faces found form ahead of the summer tournament, offering plenty of positives before embarking on the Copa America adventure.
Also adding to the USMNT’s confidence is a matchup played over a year-and-a-half ago, a friendly that saw the U.S. downed, 2-1, by Colombia in England in November 2014.
That friendly was a learning experience for the USMNT. Bobby Wood, a striker who is now a key member of the USMNT roster, missed several chances on the day. A defense that was handed a one-goal lead collapsed allowing two second half goals. In total, eight players on the USMNT roster took part in that friendly, which to many of them will likely seem lifetime ago.
“We take the fact that they’re beatable,” said defender Geoff Cameron. “You don’t let them get in their rhythm. You step on their toes a little bit, make them feel uncomfortable and take them away from their game. You don’t let them dictate the pace of the game. There will be times where we have to weather the storm and where they’re going to have possession and that’s when we drop back, get our defensive shape, wait for it, and then go. It’s going to be a difficult match, but we’re excited.
“They’re a physical team. They get rough. They get nasty. We know that, we’ve seen it and we’ve played against them,” Cameron said. “It’s not going to be a nice little friendly game. It’s not a warm-up. It’s a tournament game. They want to win but so do we. I’m sure it will be physical with fouls and this and that, but it’s professional as always. We’ve shown we can step up and rise to this occasion and we will.”
Several players will need to rise up if the USMNT is to start the tournament on the right foot.
Cameron and John Brooks will almost certainly be playing just their third game as a partnership, while Fabian Johnson is expected to shift back into the defense to deal with Cuadrado. DeAndre Yedlin will look to continue to emerge as an international-level fullback, while Wood looks to validate the beliefs that he has what it takes to be a USMNT star. Add in fresh faces like Darlington Nagbe and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, and the new-look USMNT is certainly capable of holding their own at this summer’s premier tournament.
The task now lies in actually doing it, while living up the expectations laid in front of them. At the 2014 World Cup, the USMNT was expected to be pummeled in what was the group of death, but emerged into the knockout rounds. At the Gold Cup, the USMNT was pegged as favorites, but crashed out in historic fashion before dropping the CONCACAF Cup to Mexico.
Now, expectations are somewhere in the middle. Klinsmann says the team’s goals remain to emerge from the group before taking it from there. Reaching the knockout rounds is key, Klinsmann says, for a team still learning how to win one-off games where it really counts.
The pursuit of that knockout round berth begins Friday with the biggest test the USMNT will face before they hope to enter the tournament’s next stage. That gives the USMNT’s clash with Colombia extra importance as the U.S. looks to start their Copa America run with a result against one of the world’s most formidable teams.
“Are we capable of competing with them, eye to eye, to beat them and make it far in this tournament? I think we are. I think we have the capability,” Klinsmann said. “We have the qualities, we have the drive, we have the talent, but you have to prove it. It’s the same for the coach as well. You want these opportunities. You’d love to play a Copa America every three months and a World Cup every six months if possible, but it is the way it is.
“They deserve a lot of respect, but on the other side, we have no fear,” the USMNT head coach added. “We have a team that is very hungry. We have players that can match-up with those players. This is the big stage for Michael Bradley. This is the big stage for Clint Dempsey. This is the big stage for Jermaine Jones. That’s what they want to play. You have the opportunity now. Go out and play in that stage.”