SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was a pick play in the box. Nothing too complicated. Geoff Cameron said afterward that he sees them “fairly often” in the Premier League.
On a Colombia corner kick in the eighth minute of the U.S.’s Copa América Centenario opener, Daniel Torres set a screen in the area. Cristián Zapata looped around it like a basketball player running a curl play, and the small amount of space it created between Zapata and Cameron allowed the Colombian to fire home a volley that put the U.S. on its heels right from the start.
“It hurts to go down so early,” said Michael Bradley, who was on Torres as he set the pick. “Early on in a tournament, you don’t want to put yourself behind the eight-ball right away. Obviously, we did that.”
After the U.S.’s 2-0 loss, in which Colombia scored on a corner kick and a penalty kick, Cameron couldn’t hide his frustration that a solid performance by the U.S. back line was marred by a couple decisive moments, including the pick in the box.
“Sometimes you’ll tell a guy if you get picked: Stay with the front-runner or back-runner,” Cameron said. “I just put my head down for a second. I looked over to the left to look where the ball was, and all of the sudden I had to run around. Right before, when I was kind of hugging the guy a little bit, the ref told me to put my hands down. And as soon as he told me, the play happened.”
“So I’m a little frustrated. But you’ve gotta learn. I’ve dealt with it before, and I’ll take responsibility. I know I could have done better. But overall I thought we did some good things. Defensively, I thought we were great.”
Usually it’s the U.S. that’s the team using set-pieces to make the difference and overcome deficiencies in other parts of the game. All week, we heard that it was the one area where the U.S. had an advantage against Colombia, which had struggled to defend on restarts in recent months. But in those decisive moments on Friday, it was Colombia that found a goal, while Clint Dempsey saw his blistering free kick saved by a sprawling David Ospina. In such small margins victories are won.
The language from the U.S. players and coaching staff afterward said this was a missed opportunity. That Colombia, while difficult to play against, was not at its best. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann argued “we were totally even,” which wasn’t entirely true, but Cameron got it mostly right when he said Colombia was “there for the taking.” This wasn’t the same Colombia that wowed everyone at World Cup 2014.
But in tournament soccer, zero points is zero points. The U.S. needed big performances from its mainstays if it was going to beat the No. 3-ranked team in the world, and from an attacking perspective it didn’t happen. Nobody played great in those roles for the U.S.: Bobby Wood seemed out of the action out wide. Dempsey kept grinding but had trouble creating danger aside from his saved free kick. And Bradley wasn’t sharp enough, with his giveaway leading directly to the sequence in which Colombia won its penalty kick.
Now the task is set: Costa Rica awaits for the U.S., and the necessary result was clear to the players.
“We have to win,” said Jermaine Jones.
“It’s absolutely no problem now going forward and saying we pay Costa Rica to get three points and then we play Paraguay to get three points, and then we’re in the quarterfinals,” said Klinsmann. “So the message overall is positive to the players even if we’re disappointed we didn’t get any points.”
It makes sense that the U.S. would stay optimistic given that its fate in this tournament will be decided in the next two games, not in this one. Costa Rica is an opportunity to rebound, a chance to still matter in this tournament. But the Americans won’t be able to look on the bright side if the same result happens on Tuesday.