The great showcase of American soccer began on Friday night in a stadium with a trumped-up attendance total, liberal dabs of yellow jerseys, salvos of Olé and a 2-0 drubbing which never felt especially close. This was not a revolution.
Colombia was leagues short of clinical and did not manage a goal from open play, relying instead on an eighth-minute corner kick strike from Cristián Zapata and a 42nd minute penalty from James Rodriguez to claim the three points in Group A. Still, they dominated the United States on Friday night at Levi's Stadium, reigniting nearly every concern about whether Jurgen Klinsmann has a plan for resuscitating American soccer and if the requisite pieces are even on hand.
The caveat of "nearly" applies, though, because inside the locker room of the United States National Team, there is only optimism, however groundless.
"There was no difference [between the US and Colombia] besides the two goals," Klinsmann told the assembled media after the match. "You guys obviously put the benchmark on the results… but we were absolutely even."
"Like Jurgen said, aside from set piece and the handball, I think we played pretty well and, at points, we were dominating the game," added DeAndre Yedlin. "During the run of play, we were defensively very solid."
"Get rid of those two goals and I feel like we'll be fine," said recent debutante Darlington Nagbe. "We were just unlucky."
In the interest of fairness, the USMNT did control possession, 54 percent to 46 percent. They successfully quelled Rodriguez's flashier tendencies, leaving him to drift around far more than wreak havoc with on- and off-ball cuts. And while they did not concede a goal from open play, they got away with Carlos Bacca's late strike slamming off the underside of the cross bar, an improbability that nullifies any American claims of poor luck.
But the context behind those relative successes dampens any real cause for celebration. The Americans had possession because the Colombians essentially granted it to them in order to kickstart their rolling, thunderous counterattacks. Rarely did the U.S. do anything of note with that possession. The most common scene of the night involved center backs John Brooks and Geoff Cameron pinging the ball between each other and Michael Bradley, usually in their own half, probing for windows that seldom cracked open.
There simply were too few functional outlets. Clint Dempsey, positioned atop Klinsmann's 4-3-3, often vacated the box to drop back in a false nine role, cutting off any central outlet for crosses. It didn't become a major issue only due to Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes, center forwards by trade, proving to be as inept as feared at creating width, with Wood eventually being subbed off following a thoroughly anonymous performance. They got little assistance from Yedlin and Fabian Johnson, each of whom were too preoccupied with clamping down on Edwin Cardona and Juan Cuadrado to advance the U.S. attack.
Most of all, their failures fell on Bradley, who arguably played the worst game of anyone. He looked listless in the same withdrawn role where he was so dangerous against Bolivia, alternately winging balls into areas where he lacked the touch to place them or throwing his hands up and dumping it off in the path of least resistance. While Colombia's penalty goal was set up by a Yedlin handball, it was the captain who bore the brunt of the blame, getting dispossessed in his own half to engineer the Colombian breakaway. The whistle probably should have been blown before the handball: Bradley, desperate to short-circuit the impending counter after losing the ball, drove his knee into a Colombian thigh, only for the official to grant the advantage anyway. It was the cruelest sort of irony: He couldn't even get the wrong thing done correctly.
The Colombians, meanwhile, were incisive. The Americans deserve credit for repelling more of their salvos than anyone anticipated, with Brooks and Johnson as strong standouts. Regardless, there was a danger to Colombia's movements that simply did not exist across the pitch, a lingering sense that they can, should and eventually would carve open an advantage. It was evident in Cuadrado's feints and a gorgeous sequence from Cardona, in which he juggled the ball to himself before whipping a ball toward Brad Guzan's far post. Around the 31st minute, Rodriguez unleashed a cross toward the far left of the box that seemingly bent the laws of physics; only a late Zardes clearance prevented Cardona from having possession unmarked at Guzan's right.
Rather than turtle up and bleed clock with their lead, Colombia's possession spiked in the opening half hour of the second half. Their passing surged—from 89 percent in the first half up to 94 percent. Colombia chased an open play goal as though it were the last item to tick off its shopping list, mostly because there was little reason to suspect they couldn't snatch one if they wanted to. Only fortune stopped Bacca from delivering it on a late-game breakaway, with Guzan slow to challenge the shot.
Most damningly, Colombia beat the Americans at their own game: set pieces. The pre-match narrative pointed to this as the area where the U.S. would make hay. Instead, they were bamboozled at the eight-minute mark, when Rodriguez deftly picked Geoff Cameron on the early corner, leaving Zapata unmarked to bang home a shot to Guzan's left. It was the sort of know-how the USMNT lacked: Dempsey eventually produced two sterling chances in the second half, but the enduring image was the U.S. taking virtually the same free kick—a few yards outside the Colombian box, the goal in clear view—three different times with three different players.
That indecision was among several suspect choices from Klinsmann. The Wood-Dempsey-Zardes triumvirate was a poor schematic fit to anyone watching, yet the German manager committed so hard to it that they floundered until the 66th minute of the match. By then, the game was well out of hand, blunting any real impact that subs Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe—the future and, very possibly, present of the USMNT—could do. Why not bring them on at the break? It fit the larger pattern: If there were any halftime adjustments whatsoever, they were cursory. The brightest flickers of life came in the final 20 minutes, when Colombian manager Jose Pekerman decided to call his dogs off the attack.
Perhaps Klinsmann's only bit of lucidity post-match came upon conceding that, "Obviously, we are at our backs to the wall. We need three points against Costa Rica." Accruing them against the world's 23rd-ranked team is a tall task. The 4-3-3 has flashed enough promise that it makes little sense to abandon it now, no matter how capricious Klinsmann may be with his tactics. Changes must be made, though, beginning up front. Wood cut a solemn figure post-match, conceding that "obviously, I have to learn to get better" on the wing, but Friday's loss means that luxury is gone. If Klinsmann won't insert him for Dempsey in the center—unlikely, given Dempsey's status as the most dangerous American of the evening—then he needs to revert to the bench, with Pulisic making way in either case. Nagbe, too, could have a case to feature from the jump in midfield. Perhaps it's even worth bumping Johnson up to his natural right wing position and risking lapses at the back in exchange for some genuine width up top. All options should be considered with so little margin for error.
And it's here where Klinsmann and co.'s unbridled positivity could be at its most dangerous. There is genuine value to the locker room not caving into melancholy after a thoroughly discouraging performance.But there's a thin line between optimism and delusion. Optimism instills the Americans with confidence that they can still achieve what needs to be done to advance in this tournament. Delusion encourages them to earnestly trot out possession numbers and insist they were merely grazed with a couple of strokes of poor luck. It will encourage them to remain stagnant tactically—certain that nothing is broken when, in fact, so little is truly functioning.
There's no saying for certain where they land within that dichotomy. All we have to go on is what they tell us. "We're absolutely okay with the team's performance," Jurgen Klinsmann insisted last night. By every indication, he wants to be taken at his word.