Copa America was supposed to be Jurgen Klinsmann's cross to die on. It was a novelty centennial tournament for another continent, with no impact on the U.S.'s standing for the 2018 World Cup itself. But with a need to make a showing as the host country, and with qualifiers three months away, it was as ripe a time as any to switch out managers.
Klinsmann knew what he stood to lose, with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati all but saying Jurgen's job was on the line after 18 months of not meeting expectations, including a failed Gold Cup, a lost opportunity at a Confederations Cup after losing to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and falling to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying. Klinsmann even upped the ante by virtually promising a visit to the final four in a tournament with five teams in the top 10, and the U.S. well below that at 31st. At first, it seemed like a preposterous goal, but Klinsmann somehow delivered. He led the U.S. to a semi-final appearance that looked spectacular on paper (if I were to tell you they'd lose only 0-1 in a third-place game against Colombia beforehand…). But ultimately, game-to-game, the USMNT's play came out to baseline expectations.
According to Sunil Gulati, the tournament was a relative success. "What I've said many times, we don't do things on a game-by-game basis," Gulati said of Klinsmann's job security after the 4-0 loss to Argentina in the semi-finals. "After this tournament is over, we'll look back and we'll reflect on it and talk to the right people. We do that after every major event, and this is a major event. So let's wait 'til the tournament's over." But he later made sure to add, "Overall, the performance of the team to get here, obviously was a positive."
The current player pool seems to be cut from the same bland cloth: not bad—for what's on hand. The U.S. are transitioning out of the veteran roster that relied on players almost too old for the 2014 World Cup: Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, and Chris Wondolowski. The problem is those are often the only reliable players upon which Klinsmann chooses hang his hat.
There's an urgency to blend in younger talent but when Klinsmann has needed results, he's repeatedly turned back to these older players — his players — instead of cultivating a longer term solution. The 33-year-old Dempsey will run out of steam before the next World Cup, but rather than draft in a like-for-like replacement, he chose another 33-year-old, Wondolowski, who Argentina exposed as barely an adequate sub in the short haul. (This is all that needs to be said about Wondolowski.) When the 34-year-old Jones was suspended for the Argentina match, he selected Beckerman over Darlington Nagbe.
Gyasi Zardes generally looks out of place during any play—nervously touching the ball into anyone's path but his own. He seems to wander as much as Klinsmann is wont to place him. The changes from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 formations during the Colombia and Costa Rica games-onward just found him digging out a more and more liminal spot on the field. In the Argentina match, for example, he was playing a deep right back position.
And, of course, there's the Michael Bradley conundrum. He's a player with an ability to bounce back from bad runs of form, but he's also in a nearly year-long slump with the national team. His giveaways in the back third were absolutely abhorrent this tournament, and it's hard to know how a seventh-place Eastern Conference Toronto FC is going to ail that. Even if they do, it's an awkward fit in Klinsmann's oscillation between using him as a defensive and attacking central midfielder.
It wasn't all bad. Klinsmann's long-overdue insistence on having a more static starting lineup throughout the tournament gave him a center back pairing who were in sync. John Brooks and Geoff Cameron's improved communication allowed one person to anchor back while the other could go for either a more risky offensive move, or tackle. Making sure these two know their place as core defenders is important—if there's anything Klinsmann needs to make a committed decision on, it's who his back line is.
Michael Bradley learned to depend on Alejandro Bedoya as both a defensive force and a glue man for transitional passes, bolstering optimism for at least one transition away from the likes of Jones and Beckerman. The goalkeeper situation remains the team's hallmark, with both Guzan and Howard playing well.
Bobby Wood made a huge case as a replacement for Altidore as a possible fulcrum for the attack. I say "replacement" because it's hard to imagine two players so proficient at holdup play and distribution working well off of each other. Wood and Altidore both could benefit from a player like the roster snub Jordan Morris, who is adept at running at defenders to crack a back line in half. There will be time for that, and opportunities when the Americans must finally reconcile with phasing out Dempsey.
But what does this all mean for the U.S. going forward? And what can Klinsmann take away from the tournament?
Based on the team's expectations going into the halfway point of Klinsmann's second World Cup cycle, it's hard to see exactly how a 3-3 record in Copa America fits the "top 10 teams in the world" criteria set out upon his appointment. His promise for sexy, attack-oriented soccer was yet to be realized before the tournament, and it is yet to be realized now.
In essence, the Copa America tournament saw the U.S. beat the teams they were supposed to beat, and lose to teams they were supposed to lose to. As one team in the tournament's Group of Death, the U.S. were billed as the third-best side—with Costa Rica coming in at eight FIFA rankings higher than them, and Colombia ranked third in the world. Paraguay was their gimme game, and they only took it with a struggle after going down a man.
The Ecuador quarterfinal game played out like the Paraguay game, seemingly in identical fashion, as the U.S. went up a goal, went down a man, and struggled, relying on their defense to get them by. Argentina game was basically—understandably—a good old-fashioned whupping.
And as for their relatively meaningless Colombia rematch, the U.S. delivered an exciting series of opportunities that, at first, seemed like a vast improvement from their first loss. Losing by only one goal, as opposed to two, would seem like a great metric for improvement. But the more finite numbers paint a different picture, with the U.S. only besting their first match stats by a small margin against the Cafeteros in the columns of attacking half and final third possessions, along with duels and tackles won. Everything else was squarely in Colombia's favor.
Ultimately, Klinsmann is back at the helm, and the U.S. National Team's fortunes seem to be tied to his erratic levels of success. They won as much as they lost, and for every development on the roster, there was another that ran stagnant. The future of U.S. soccer now feels like a game of averages. It's not the sort of math that tallies up to the world power that was promised.