The U.S. Men’s National Team kicks off the Copa America on Friday night, and there are no shortages of storylines and trends to watch out for in the opening match against Colombia.
Set to face one of South America’s best, the USMNT enters on the heels of a three-game string of friendly victories over of Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Bolivia. However, while the three matches certainly boosted the USMNT’s confidence, Colombia will present an entirely new test that will likely be the most difficult of the group stage.
With stars like James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado scattered throughout their roster, Colombia is likely to be the more proactive team on Friday night. However, the USMNT will have chances of their own, especially if they take advantage of a major weakness displayed by Los Cafateros over the last several months.
Here’s a look at some storylines, trends and matchups to watch out for when the USMNT takes on Colombia:
JOHNSON FACES TOUGH TEST AGAINST CUADRADO
After a year of playing in the midfield on the club level, Fabian Johnson’s return to the fullback position sees him matched up with a player capable of besting even the world’s best defenders.
In Juan Cuadrado, Johnson faces off with a player supremely quick with both his running speed and dribble ability. The Colombian star has the pace to blow past most players, while his flair and technical ability on the ball are counted among the world’s best. His end product may not always be flawless, but Cuadrado will, at the very least, cause havoc with his ability to slip past players in the open field.
Throughout his USMNT tenure, Johnson has proven to be a competent defender, but one still prone to the occasional mental mistake. That cannot happen on Friday night. Johnson must stay disciplined, time his runs forward correctly and be prepared to corral Cuadrado when the Colombian works his way onto the ball. Johnson will likely require help with the latter, as the winger in front of him, likely Gyasi Zardes or Bobby Wood, should be prepared to track back often to help put our fires.
Johnson’s return to fullback will see him thrown right into the fire with a matchup that is one of the most intriguing heading into Friday’s match.
PHYSICALITY TO BE MAJOR THEME ON FRIDAY NIGHT
For all of their attacking flair, Colombia is not afraid to mix it up physically, and should be expected to do so on Friday night.
Both Geoff Cameron and Jurgen Klinsmann pointed to Colombia’s physicality, stating that they expected Friday’s match to be a typically chippy tournament affair. A physical team themselves, the U.S. is surely prepared to meet the South American side in that department in a match that could see its share of fouls.
The key will be to put forth that physical presence in an intelligent and tactical way. The U.S. must remind players like Rodriguez and Cuadrado that they can’t just blow by their defenders, but taking needless cards will help no one. On the other end, the U.S. must be prepared to battle through fouls and take full advantage of the opportunities that come in their aftermath…
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF COLOMBIA’S STRUGGLES ON SET PIECES
For years. the USMNT has looked to win the set-piece battle, and Friday’s match will prove no different against a Colombia team that has struggled from dead ball situations.
In the build-up to the Copa America, Los Cafateros have looked inept with their set-piece defending. Haiti was able to best Colombia on a set piece in last week’s friendly, while Ecuador was also able to score from a dead ball position. Even Bolivia, a team that the USMNT just thrashed, 4-0, troubled Colombia on set pieces. In three of their last five World Cup qualifying matches, Colombia has allowed a goal via a dead ball situation in what has turned out to be a worrying trend for the South American power.
Entering Friday’s clash, the USMNT should have every advantage on set pieces. Both John Brooks and Geoff Cameron are taller than their Colombian counterparts, Christian Zapata and Jeison Murillo, while Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood can all join the mix in the box. Add in the typically-spectacular service of Michael Bradley, and the USMNT certainly has the weapons to nab a cheap goal or two.
How many chances the USMNT get remains to be seen, but in a game where they will likely be on the back foot for extended periods, set piece situations against a defense that has struggled in defending them could prove the difference.
LIMITING JAMES RODRIGUEZ
Even with his issues at Real Madrid, James Rodriguez is a superstar, one which the U.S. will need to watch closely on Friday night.
The 2014 World Cup served as Rodriguez’s coming-out party and, while the ensuing years may not have gone to plan from an individual perspective, the playmaker remains in an elite class. Rodriguez has the ability to carve open a defense with a pass or a long-range shot, making him the most dangerous player on the field on Friday night.
In defending him, the U.S. has several options. They could do so by committee, stifling Rodriguez from every angle while attempting to maintain their lines with the back four. They could man-mark him with someone like Kyle Beckerman in an effort to take him out of the game as much as possible. Or they could bunker in and dare Rodriguez to beat them, a proposition that could prove deadly at any moment.
However they choose to handle it, the USMNT faces a tough test in Rodriguez, a player who is the best the U.S. will see in the group stage.
USMNT MUST BE PREPARED TO LOSE POSSESSION BATTLE
In the run up to the Copa America, the USMNT demonstrated that they could win the possession battle. With a trio of impressive performances, the USMNT finally proved proactive with the ball and, in turn, was rewarded with three consecutive wins.
That will not come so easy on Friday night.
Playing against a Colombia team that is technically superior, the USMNT must be prepared to lose the possession battle. For large stretches of the game, the U.S. must be prepared to buckle up and grind through tough sequences and moments brought on by the Colombia attack.
That does not mean that the U.S. shouldn’t take it to Los Cafateros. Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense, and the U.S. should not completely concede the ball to the opposition. The USMNT should certainly look to build out of the back and wear Colombia down when they can, but must be intelligent in doing so.
Attempting to go blow-for-blow for 90 minute with Colombia could prove to be tactical suicide, so the USMNT must be prepared to weather some storms. That may see the USMNT lose the possession battle on the night, but it may help them win the war to come if they can grab a point from the Copa America opener.