The U.S. national team’s final tune-up before it kicks off the Copa América Centenario next week against Colombia will certainly leave coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players feeling pretty good. They pounded hapless Bolivia, 4–0, at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park, and easily could have won by more.
Gyasi Zardes, who scored two goals, bounced back from a rough outing in Wednesday’s win over Ecuador while 17-year-old wunderkind Christian Pulisic revved his own hype machine with a surgical second-half strike. There were no apparent U.S. injuries and several men who didn’t play Wednesday saw the field. Meanwhile, the visitors created just one decent scoring chance. Overall, it couldn’t have gone better.
But did it help the U.S. prepare for Colombia? That remains to be seen. Questions remain, permutations are plentiful and the challenge presented by Saturday’s opponent certainly could have been tougher.
Here are three thoughts from an easy yet slightly odd evening in Kansas City:
This was an unusual dress rehearsal
Before kicking off the 2013 and 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cups, the U.S. played friendlies against Guatemala. Before leaving for Brazil and their World Cup opener against Ghana, the Americans met Nigeria. It’s a simple and obvious approach—prepare for the big game(s) by playing similar opponents.
Bolivia is, technically, a South American team. They’ll play in the Copa, in fact. But the U.S., which has been drawn into a difficult and balanced group, won’t experience an evening during the tournament like the one they enjoyed Saturday. Bolivia was awful, unable to put any pressure on the ball or take advantage of any mistakes. There’s a reason it’s won only two games since the start of 2015. With plenty of room to play and no reason to fear turnovers, the Americans strolled to an easy triumph that may have done them a slight disservice. It would have been more helpful to prepare for next Friday’s showdown against Colombia with a tougher test.
In that 2014 friendly against Nigeria, Klinsmann’s starting 11 was unchanged in the World Cup opener against Ghana. But that was not the plan on Saturday. Michael Orozco and Matt Besler started at right and left back, respectively, and DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson didn’t enter until the second half. It’s widely presumed that Yedlin, Johnson and center backs John Brooks and Geoff Cameron will be the first-choice back four at the Copa. But Klinsmann’s decision to play them together for the very first time in Saturday’s second half, against a tired and increasingly disinterested foe, was puzzling.
In midfield, Michael Bradley reprised the deep-lying role in which he was so effective against Ecuador. He said following that game, “I feel like I have good things to add to the team playing in that spot a little deeper.” And he’s right. But it still might make more sense to deploy Kyle Beckerman there against Colombia. Although the U.S. was slow and static in possession with Beckerman, Bradley and Jermaine Jones anchoring the middle against Ecuador, Colombia poses the sort of defensive problems that Beckerman can help solve. He was the Americans’ best player in the 2014 loss to Los Cafeteros.
“Michael obviously, he has the technique, he has the vision to play calmly out of the back,” Klinsmann said this week. “Do they play with a pure No. 10, for example, the opponents? You wish to have a Kyle in there to clean things up. It really kind of depends on what the opponent is doing.”
We may see Bradley pushed higher again, where he wasn’t playing on Saturday. Klinsmann has always stressed the importance of options and a versatile, deep player pool, so that Nigeria game may have been an outlier. While Saturday’s win may have been fun, it didn’t tell us much about what we’ll see next week in Santa Clara.
Tantalizing, but important questions persist up front
Speaking of fun, did you catch that sweet icing-on-the-cake goal in the 69th minute? That was Darlington Nagbe executing a slick give-and-go with Jones and slicing between Bolivian defenders toward the penalty spot. And when the Portland Timbers playmaker, who was appearing in just his seventh senior international, laid the ball off to Pulisic on the right, we witnessed history. The Borussia Dortmund product became the youngest player to score for the senior U.S. squad, and visions of Nagbe, Pulisic and Bobby Wood leading the Americans to Copa glory surely danced in many heads.
Klinsmann has never had so many choices to make up front. In fact, it’s tough to recall any U.S. coach who had this kind of attacking depth at his disposal—and that’s accounting for the fact that Jozy Altidore will miss the tournament with another hamstring injury. Many will call for the future to begin now—start Nagbe, Pulisic and Wood in the Copa, enjoy the fireworks and prepare them for 2018. But with Zardes (who’s only 24 himself) making a statement with two goals and Clint Dempsey still in Klinsmann’s plans, the decisions become tougher.
Dempsey started again as the center forward in a 4-3-3 and again saw too little of the ball. It simply isn’t his ideal spot. He withdraws to get more involved, and that makes it less likely he’ll return to the penalty area to finish the play. He’s a goal scorer. Zardes, meanwhile, has struggled in a wider role because he’s not very strong in possession. But play him closer to the middle, and we have a sense of what he can accomplish. Both of his goals against Bolivia came with one touch. In the 26th he slipped a beautiful looping ball from Alejandro Bedoya past the charging goalkeeper and in the 52nd he finished a cut-back cross from Wood.
Zardes had no problem cutting in from the wing on Saturday because Bolivia posed no threat. There was more than enough support behind him to clean up any counterattacks. He likely won’t have the same luxury at the Copa América. Wood also is accustomed to playing a more central role, and Dempsey surely would have a great impact as a second forward. But no formation is perfect. Playing a 4-3-3 against a decent team offers dynamism in the attack but requires significant commitment and two-way play from the wingers. Play a 4-4-2, assuming Jones and Bradley are on the field, and you’re almost certainly leaving a dangerous and exciting young attacker on the bench (or playing Jones on the flank).
Is it too much of a good thing? Klinsmann will have to work that out. He’s asked players to “prove their point,” and they have. Now the manager will have to make some tough choices.
Big night for Bedoya
Bedoya proved his point on Saturday. He had an indifferent start to the year with the national team and has been overshadowed lately by the rise of Nagbe and Pulisic. But the Nantes veteran made it clear against Bolivia that he has no intention of being passed by. Considering his experience, close control and work rate, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he started against Colombia after Saturday’s performance.
His chip to set up Zardes’s first goal was world class. And on the Americans’ second goal, which came in the 37th, he executed a smart run through the right channel on a quick free kick taken by Bradley. Bedoya than hit a cross straight into the path of Brooks.
It’s worth noting that it was Bedoya’s dribbling run up the right wing that set the stage for Nagbe’s late game-winner on Wednesday.
Bedoya typically plays in the middle for Nantes, underneath the forwards. He scored five goals for the club this season. Klinsmann has used him on the right in the past, but may have found an ideal compromise with Bedoya's role on Saturday, when he and Jones shared the middle with Bradley in support. While Jones covers ground, Bedoya is a smart, composed connector, and his vision and anticipation are rare in the U.S. player pool. If Klinsmann opts to stick with the 4-3-3, he may have found the right combination in Kansas City.