It’s oh so tempting to review the second half of Wednesday’s win over Ecuador—to watch the gifs and vines of Christian Pulisic dancing through traffic or of Darlington Nagbe volleying home his first international goal—and imagine that same skill and verve on display throughout the upcoming Copa América Centenario.
After all, this is the U.S. national team we’ve been waiting for: proactive, dynamic and pleasing to the eye. But context is king. That second half came in a sparsely-attended friendly contested in the heat of Frisco, Texas. Both teams substituted liberally and Ecuador kicked off without several usual starters. There were promising signs, of course, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t quite ready proclaim a new era after the whistle.
The Copa, which kicks off June 3, will test his ability to strike the proper balance between flair and enthusiasm on one side and veteran guile on the other. He’ll get one last chance to fine-tune his team in Saturday night’s friendly against Bolivia in Kansas City, Kansas. Then it’s on to the Bay Area, where the U.S. will meet Colombia next week.
“In a tournament, anything can happen. In a tournament, things change quickly. The team that starts a tournament is never the team that finishes a tournament,” Klinsmann told reporters following the win over Ecuador.
“Yes, there are established players and they deserve a certain kind of a—not preference—but there’s a priority in it,” he continued. “We always tell the younger ones: you’ve got to come in and you’ve got to sooner or later push them out. That’s their job … That’s a normal process. That’s when you often say between the two [World Cups] you want to see the younger ones coming and change the face of the team one step at a time. But you also have to give respect to the established ones because of who they are and what they did and they’re not giving in either. This is what you want to have. You want to have that every day. This tournament hopefully will be a long tournament for us, so you’ll see a lot of these elements coming up in the next few weeks.”
It’s still tough to imagine Clint Dempsey not starting. He’s a proven tournament player. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that he fares better when paired with another forward. He wasn’t in the first half on Wednesday as Klinsmann deployed a conservative 4-3-3 (which becomes a 4-5-1 when the ball is lost) and failed to make an impact. It’s also apparent that the manager’s quest to turn Michael Bradley into a No. 10 forced him away from a more withdrawn role, from which the captain can better orchestrate the team. But as Klinsmann reminded us Wednesday, decisions regarding the midfield alignment are situational. Sometimes, the dour, defensive approach employed from the start against Ecuador may be what the game requires.
“The [4-3-3] gives us a lot more compactness throughout the midfield,” Klinsmann said. “It depends a lot on the opponents. Michael, obviously he has the technique, he has the vision to play calmly out of the back. Do they play with a pure No. 10, for example, the opponents? You wish to have a Kyle [Beckerman] there to clean things up. It really kind of depends on what the opponent is doing.”
Are Nagbe and Pulisic, who’ve earned a combined eight senior caps, ready to play on both sides of the ball in the Copa cauldron? If they are, how necessary is Jermaine Jones if Bradley plays as a dedicated No. 6? Can Klinsmann win the midfield and still play both Dempsey and Bobby Wood up front? How will the manager solve the logjam in the middle, where Nagbe, Jones and Alejandro Bedoya all are most comfortable? Is he willing to sacrifice Gyasi Zardes’s speed on the flank for a slower but more composed alternative?
The answers to those questions may fluctuate throughout the Copa. If Klinsmann has his way, his team will be comfortable with “two or three” alignments and approaches. Saturday’s game against Bolivia (8 p.m.; FS1, UniMas) represents the final opportunity to find that comfort and see which players “send their signals” before meeting powerful Colombia.
At least we have an idea of who’s going to start in defense. Upheaval in front of goal has been a staple of Klinsmann’s tenure, but it now seems that a first-choice four has emerged. We saw three of them—left back Fabian Johnson, center back John Brooks and right back DeAndre Yedlin—against Ecuador. And now that his hamstring is healed, Geoff Cameron almost certainly will slot in alongside Brooks against Bolivia.
Klinsmann announced Friday that the Stoke City center back was ready to go.
That back four has never started together. Brooks and Cameron partnered briefly against Ghana at the World Cup and have been paired from kickoff only once. That was three years ago in a friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina, which found the net three times in a 4-3 loss.
"We've played together before a bunch of times in training," Cameron told ESPN in Kansas City. "I think we're comfortable and confident with one another.”
They have 90 minutes to establish the necessary on-field chemistry.
Meanwhile, outside back Timmy Chandler has been axed from the roster because of a quadriceps strain. The U.S. has filed a request to add Edgar Castillo as a replacement. He becomes the only natural left back on the squad and will be the obvious back-up if Johnson is hurt or moves into midfield. Castillo won’t join the U.S. until next week. He’s due to play for Monterrey in Sunday night’s Liga MX final.