It's a question that to most would have a simple answer, but to some, including two of the most prominent people that it pertains to, there's an agree-to-disagree approach.
What should the USA's target be at Copa America?
To U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann, it's a place in the semifinals. Or at least it was, until he somewhat backtracked on the eve of the competition, stating the goal was to "get through this group and take it from there."
For U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, dreaming of a semifinal is dreaming a little too small.
"I never dream about playing in semifinals is the best way to put it," he told SI's Brian Straus this week.
Are results all that matters? Should a trophy be the only barometer? Does it matter how the U.S. does in comparison to other nations (namely Mexico)? How should we define U.S. success at Copa America? Planet Fútbol's panel offers some thoughts:
It would be convenient if tournaments like these were won 100% with skill on the field. But they’re not. Any team needs a bit of luck to get out of the group stage and beyond, and the U.S. is no different.
It is with that in mind that I suggest that “success” for the United States in the Copa America Centenario is something fairly nebulous: Playing well.
Klinsmann’s entire tenure as U.S. coach has been about improving the American style of play, making it more proactive, balanced, and efficient. In all too few instances we haven’t necessarily seen that improvement happen on a big stage. If it happens at the Copa America, that will be a success. And if a series of hard-luck events prevents the U.S. from advancing out of its group in the process, so be it.
I'm less concerned with defining success and more focused on the lunacy of setting a target that's anything but winning it all. It's a personal pet peeve, but when any coach does that it makes me raise an eyebrow.
Why put a cap on your goals? You don't need to come out and guarantee a trophy, nor do you need to come out and say it will be a failure if you fall short of one. But there's nothing wrong with saying that your team is good enough to win it all or able to compete with any team in the field, much like Mexico's Juan Carlos Osorio did, and leave it at that. There are ways to convey confidence without publicly stating that your team has a ceiling.
Now, to Klinsmann's declaration: Would reaching the semifinals be considered a successful tournament? I'd say so. This field features five of the top nine teams in the world (according to the most recent and all-knowing FIFA ranking), eight teams that reached the 2014 World Cup knockout stage and four that reached its quarterfinals. Reaching the final four and doing it while getting out of a relatively difficult group and presumably beating Brazil or Ecuador in a knockout match would be impressive, and it'd go a long way to in erase the stink of last summer's Gold Cup. But reaching a late stage and being surpassed by Mexico, or even worse, losing to Mexico, would be a tough pill to swallow. So it's not entirely black and white.
All that said, this tournament is the only real major stage on which the U.S. will play on the road to the 2018 World Cup. Assuming it qualifies for that, "success" would be having a fruitful tournament to look back on as a reference point and confidence builder.
Klinsmann has already outlined his definition of success.
“We have to learn how to get in a tournament really to the next level,” he said last month. “And the next level is, and at Copa America now, is to win your quarterfinal. Win your quarterfinal against whoever that will be in order to make the final four. This is our goal.”
Traditionally, the U.S. has failed to take its tournaments to the next level. In the national team’s 101-year history, it’s won only three knockout games after surviving the group stage of a non-CONCACAF competition. And two of those came against a CONCACAF opponent (Mexico).
That stunning upset of Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup is the outlier.
Klinsmann is correct. Getting through the group stage only to fall in the quarters on home soil won’t be enough. But for this Copa to be considered a success, still more is required. Simply put, the U.S. has to play well. At the World Cup, the Americans were outclassed in three of four games. At last year’s Gold Cup, they lacked dynamism and creativity against inferior opposition.
At this point in Klinsmann’s tenure, there must be evidence of substance and style.
We should be able to identify a coherent tactical plan that makes sense within the context of an individual game and that emphasizes his players’ instincts and strengths. And we should see moments of combination and creativity that threaten an opponent from the run of play.
This tournament presents a valuable mid-cycle chance to establish a foundation for the 2018 World Cup while demonstrating the progress Klinsmann has made toward the sort of soccer he promised. That, perhaps even more than the final score, will define the Copa’s legacy.
Most of us agree that it would be a failure if the U.S. doesn’t advance from its group in the Copa América Centenario. But that doesn’t mean it would necessarily be a success just to get out of the group.
We’re still at a point where raw results matter for the U.S. in major tournaments, and reaching the semifinals would be enough to qualify as a success (though if you get to the semis you might as well win the thing). That said, how the U.S. plays matters too. A quarterfinal exit to Brazil in which the U.S. plays well might well end up being termed a success. But a repeat of World Cup 2014—i.e., going out in the first knockout game while being dominated—wouldn’t be received the same way two years later on home soil.
The U.S. is good enough to beat any team in this tournament, and we should keep that in mind when setting expectations and rendering judgment.