For the second consecutive year, the U.S. national team’s summer will end with a game it didn’t want to play.
Not all anticlimaxes are the same, however. Contesting third place at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup represented an historic failure. Contesting it at the Copa América Centenario arguably represents incremental progress, albeit on the heels of a heavy semifinal defeat.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann targeted the Copa’s final four, and reaching that goal likely was going to result in a semifinal against a better team. The Americans did themselves no favors during Tuesday’s 4-0 loss in Houston—the tactics and approach were disappointing and ineffective—but Argentina clearly was superior. A two-time world champion, La Albiceleste were the 2014 World Cup runner-up, boast the sport’s best player and currently are ranked No. 1 by FIFA. The U.S. has won five World Cup games in the past five decades and last week, it beat a non-CONCACAF team in an elimination game for just the third time in program history (Ecuador in the Copa quarters).
Argentina delivered an emphatic reminder that the U.S. isn’t ready to contend consistently for major titles. That reminder stung. Moments after the loss, captain Michael Bradley said he wasn’t sure “what sense these third place games have.” It brought to mind Louis Van Gaal’s post-semifinal press conference two years ago in São Paulo, where he said a bronze medal match “should never be played” and “has got nothing to do whatsoever with sport.”
The Dutch national team manager eventually softened that stance—“There is still something for us to do here,” he said—and three days later the Netherlands gathered itself and beat Brazil, 3-0, for bronze. The smiles in the postgame photos from Brasilia indicated that the contest wasn’t entirely meaningless. There’s something between championship or bust. There’s a difference between third place and last. Winning is better than losing, and a bronze medal is better than no medal at all.
That’s especially true for a work-in-progress soccer nation like the U.S., which will play for third in the Copa América on Saturday evening in Glendale, Arizona. The Americans (3-2-0) will meet Colombia (2-2-1), which won the group-stage game between the two countries. Overturning that 2-0 result against the No. 3 team in the world is just one potential reason to take the field on Saturday. Finishing the tournament on a higher note, establishing some momentum heading into September’s World Cup qualifiers and eventually looking back and feeling some pride in finishing third in a 16-team tournament featuring so many traditional heavyweights are among the others.
“This third-place game is huge for us, absolutely no doubt about it,” Klinsmann told reporters on Thursday. “We’re talking about third place in a Copa América, so we take this very very serious with a lot of pride. Obviously, we got a lesson from Argentina in the semifinals and we give them all the compliments they deserve, but now this is a wonderful moment, a wonderful opportunity for our players to prove a point … Let’s show [Colombia] now that we are growing, that we are learning. Let’s avoid those mistakes and take the game to them.”
To start preparing, Klinsmann may take the temperature of his locker room and figure out which players care the most about proving that point. Those who may be spent after eight national team games and thousands of miles of travel over the past month can be forgiven, while those for whom third place really matters could be rewarded with an opportunity to play.
Bradley likely will come around as Van Gaal did. Or, Klinsmann could use Saturday’s game to get a closer look at players or combinations that weren’t used heavily during the tournament. How would Fabian Johnson look in left midfield against a quick, skillful team like Colombia? Does a Bradley-Darlington Nagbe partnership in center midfield have potential? What about a forward pairing of Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic?
A consolation game provides the opportunity to test some of those hypotheticals in an environment that’s more serious and competitive than a friendly (there will not be wholesale substitutions). It’s an opportunity that doesn't have to be wasted. Of course, Klinsmann also could decide to go full-speed-ahead for bronze. He’ll have his full squad available if he wants to use it—Wood, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya all will be eligible after getting suspended for the semifinal.
Meaning will remain in the eye of the beholder on Saturday. But whatever approach the manager chooses, there’s at least something to motivate the players should they choose to look for it. They’ll be wearing their country’s colors against a good team that just beat them three weeks ago. They’ll get the chance to show they learned from that loss. Maybe they’ll get to pose for a postgame photo featuring some smiles and, down the road, appreciate third place more than fourth. The semifinal is over. It can’t be played again. But the ending of this Copa América isn’t yet written.
“We lost the first game in the group stage and also we can show the people that we can play better and we can do it better,” Jones said.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said in Houston that his grade for Klinsmann, the team and the tournament will be complete only after the consolation contest.
“Obviously [the semifinal] was disappointing,” he said. “That there’s a gap between the two teams is not a surprise to any of us. That you can win some of those games is also possible, but [Tuesday] that wasn’t going to happen and it was pretty clear early on. So obviously, there’s been some very good positives out of this, but let’s see, we’ve got another game against a team that’s ranked top-five in the world, so let’s wait for that game …. let’s make that part of the overall assessment.”
Last summer, the U.S. was upset in the Gold Cup semifinal by Jamaica and consigned to its worst finish in 15 years. It played like it wanted to be anywhere but the tournament’s third-place game against Panama and lost on penalty kicks. But the Americans never have finished third in a Copa América and have placed at least that high in a senior competition featuring teams outside of CONCACAF only twice in 85 years. Saturday’s game isn’t the one the U.S. wanted to play. But it’s not nothing.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to finish this off this tournament on a very high note,” Klinsmann said. “It’s been a fantastic tournament for everybody involved … Now we want to finish it off in really good style and nothing better then to finish things off with a team that is in the top 10 in the world, that we faced already in the tournament and to prove a point that we can compete with them, absolutely.”