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The Copa America Centenario Will Be Jurgen Klinsmann's Latest, And Maybe Last, Proving Ground

A team misshapen in a coach's own image will be under pressure to produce at home.
Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

You can call it, as Michael Bradley did on Thursday, "the special edition Copa America."

The first major soccer tournament played on American soil since the 1994 World Cup should be, and is, a big deal for the U.S. Men's National Team. Among the more refreshing things ahead of Friday's opening match against Colombia is the absence of anyone downplaying that fact. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann spent chunks of his Thursday press conference laying down groundwork should the U.S. wither in their stacked group (Colombia and Costa Rica were both 2014 World Cup teams, and Paraguay is ranked 44th in the world by FIFA), but no one – not Klinsmann or his players or anyone watching – is diminishing the impact of what's to come.


"This is a big benchmark," Klinsmann said. "This is about measuring yourself. Are you able to compete with [the world's best], eye to eye? To beat them and make it far in this tournament? I think we are. I think we have the capabilities and we have the qualities. We have the drive. We have the talent. But you've got to prove it."

Watch: Jozy Altidore's Long Road To Europe And Back

The obvious question is whether they can. But five years into the Klinsmann regime, it's also fair to wonder exactly how they can. When Klinsmann took over, the Americans were the same as they always were – conservative yet tenacious, limited, yet mentally stout. Appointing the former Germany boss was acknowledging the need aspire to something greater, a worthy goal and one he seemed tailor-made to achieve. No sooner had he walked through the door than Klinsmann proclaimed that this era – his era – of American soccer would be "a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it."

After an ambitious start, Klinsmann's vision has backslid into half-hearted pragmatism; perhaps the boldest thing remaining is the endless slotting of his charges into areas outside their natural positions. There have certainly been successes along the way – no American manager in recent history has been tasked with doing more to augment youth development, for instance. But there's no identifying what, if anything, the country embodies on the pitch through the blizzard of formation changes, positional tweaks and tactical switches that encompass the last half-decade.


The latest flavor of the moment is the 4-3-3, a formation they mostly bumped into in the wake of Jozy Altidore's latest injury. So far, it's working: The USMNT has won both games since the switch and flashed perhaps its most dynamic form since the 2014 World Cup in their final tune-up match, a 4-0 steamrolling of a lackadaisical Bolivia. Bradley, in particular, seems rejuvenated after sliding into the sort of withdrawn midfield role he excels at club level versus pigeonholing him into a number 10 position that mutes his strengths.

Alejandro Bedoya could make or break the USMNT's newest formation. Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports.

But even this is emblematic of the Klinsmann conundrum. The forward line could be a disaster-in-waiting, with natural center forwards Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes masquerading as wingers and Clint Dempsey, never a target man and at his best while distributing, forced to either hold the center line or wear down his 33-year-old legs by flitting everywhere in a false nine role. Nor is there a true box-to-box mid to replace Bradley's forward runs if he lays back to distribute, at least not unless Liberian-born Darlington Nagbe fulfills the promise many see in him. The constant lineup shuffling has frayed any hopes of genuine chemistry between John Brooks and Geoff Cameron at center back.

Among the greatest keys to holding it together will be Alejandro Bedoya, the player tasked with striking a balance between Bradley's withdrawn playmaking and Jermaine Jones' jagged defense in midfield. Now 29, he's evolved beyond a low-rent attacking mid into a genuinely well-rounded player. "He's getting more mature," Klinsmann said. "He understands 'I'm now getting toward an age where people expect a little more leadership, more responsibilities.'" Or, as Bradley put it ever so succinctly, "he's better" than who he was, a seemingly basic conclusion that is anything but.


But is Bedoya good enough in the ways that the Americans need? If he can't impose himself on both ends, the midfield won't generate enough offense or defense to smooth out the imperfections in front and behind them. It's a tall order for a player who exhibits competency more than excellence. Ideally, he wouldn't be leaned on as much as this.

You can mostly forgive Klinsmann for forcing the pieces to fit this time, however, because there isn't enough congruous talent on hand to make any one philosophy work. Timmy Chandler's absence means that even if Klinsmann wanted to reposition Fabian Johnson at the wing, where he excelled this year in the Bundesliga, the Americans would be faced with an exposed left side that Edgar Castillo's slipshod defense could never cover (some might argue Timmy Chandler's presence wouldn't solve this problem, either). Revert to the 4-4-2 and there's no one to man the right flank, while also exacerbating the lack of a suitable complement to Bradley in the center of the pitch. A 4-5-1 probably requires benching one of Dempsey or Wood, only the team's two most dependable goal scorers. It's a sliding tile puzzle, in which each new movement exposes somewhere else.

Somehow, it will have to do against arguably the most formidable draw in the Copa. Colombia is the world's third-ranked team and drips technical quality; by Klinsmann's own admission, "they deserved to be named among the favorites" to win the tournament. Costa Rica outlasted every other CONCACAF team in the 2014 World Cup. Paraguay, the lowest-ranked team in the group, eliminated Brazil in last year's Copa en route to a semi-final appearance.


It shouldn't surprise, then, to hear Klinsmann walk back the very expectations he helped set less than ten days ago, when he declared, in no uncertain terms, that the team's goal was the semifinals. On Thursday, it formally became to get out of the group, with the 51-year-old German even gently admonishing a reporter who suggested that the goal ought to be to win the entire tournament. Of course, Klinsmann also said, "I think we have strong enough, talented enough players to beat Colombia," the very team he touted as a world-beater. It was typically schizophrenic, one minute puffing his chest out and proclaiming that "we have no fear," only to reassert how getting to the knockout rounds would be a success. He even tossed in a "we'll try hard" for good measure.

Still, though Klinsmann worked to soften public pressure, he also acknowledged the hard truth: "It's about winning." If last year's Gold Cup debacle was "a learning curve" for the likes of Wood, Brooks, and DeAndre Yedlin, then now is the time for them to deliver. "And," he added later, on the subject of expectations, "it's the same for the coach as well."

That will certainly pique the interest of Klinsmann's burgeoning list of detractors, many of whom have wanted him fired for over a year. But U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati remains Klinsmann's greatest ally and even a miserable trio of group performances doesn't figure to change that so quickly. "I don't think his job is at risk," Brad Friedel, the former U.S. goalkeeper and current U-19 coach who is calling the Colombia game for FOX Sports, told VICE Sports. "If the players stop working for a coach, that is when jobs are at risk."

But, as is the case with his players, Klinsmann's margin for error is shrinking. And though countries loathe replacing managers midway through World Cup qualifying, Klinsmann himself was appointed in exactly such circumstances. Failure in this Copa could be what undoes him, if not now then further down the road after a lesser slip-up. There is no greater domestic showcase for American soccer on the horizon, and so it's imperative that the USMNT demonstrates that it truly can hang with the game's blue bloods.

Above all else, then, he would do well to heed his own words at the podium on Thursday.

"Americans are very ambitious," he told his audience. "They don't like to be behind."