The Final Group Stage Match Gives the US National Team A Chance To Establish A Rhythm
Every game is not just a win, loss, or draw, but another data point on a trend line attempting to extrapolate Klinsmann’s grand plan.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
There are two ways of looking at the United States' first two matches in Copa America Centenario. The first and most obvious: they lost their first game 2-0 in a dreary, uninteresting affair against Colombia, then smacked Costa Rica 4-0 in a redeeming victory—thanks to a clever tactical shift after 20 minutes from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2.
The other way of looking at it: the US played the same lineup and came out to both matches in the same formation—with a 1-0 lead before the tactical shift against Costa Rica—and somehow got completely different results. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said the team played well in their first game—he's not entirely wrong, either—and they clearly did so again in the second.
Klinsmann downplayed the tactical shift's importance with respect to dominating the midfield, saying the Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones pairing was "very good against Colombia"—not everyone agrees, as some called the Colombia game Bradley's worst in a US shirt—and the change to the 4-4-2 against Costa Rica did little to improve that pivotal pairing which so often dictates the US's fortunes.
Regardless of which way you look at it, the US now heads into the third and final group stage match against Paraguay, needing at least a draw to advance into the knockout rounds.
This is how it has been for Klinsmann's tenure: five years in, it's still hard to tell what kind of team Klinsmann wants this to be or what we can expect to see on a game-to-game basis. The US can give off the air of constant tactical reconstruction while, in the short run, seeing mostly the same faces on the field. It can feel like the US is stagnating while also being volatile. These paradoxes obfuscate any rational discussion about the team and Klinsmann's tenure. Every new game is interpreted for direction, although that's something no single game can provide. Every game is not just a win, loss, or draw, but another data point on a trend line attempting to extrapolate Klinsmann's grand plan.
Klinsmann has a point when he says the US played better against Colombia than the score line suggests. In both games, one team benefited from an early penalty decision that tilted the game. In the first game against Colombia, the US went down within the first ten minutes on a hard luck penalty, where a cross into the box went off defender DeAndre Yedlin's arm. In the second, they benefited from a push in the box that, while a clear foul, often doesn't get called.
Likewise, the US's "expected goals" numbers—a metric that determines the likelihood any given shot will result in a goal based on its location and other factors—for the two matches are fairly similar: 0.8 against Colombia and 1.4 (plus the penalty) against Costa Rica, a difference of only 0.6 expected goals based on Michael Caley's metric.
So, at least the "expected goals" metric, like Klinsmann, views their games as more similar than different. The main difference was the US's ability to finish low percentage shots, suggesting exceptional shooting, poor keeping, or both.
Either way you look at it, the most obvious difference between the two games was less about the US, and more their opponent. Colombia, ranked third in the world, simply didn't play their best against the US. Costa Rica is 23rd in the FIFA rankings, and are only that high due to a surprisingly deep run in the 2014 World Cup—thanks in large part to stellar keeping by Keylor Navas, who missed this tournament due to injury.
Meanwhile, the US roster is mostly the same from the 2014 World Cup. Eight of Klinsmann's 11 Copa America starters played in Brazil. The only major swaps have been Brad Guzan at keeper and the additions of Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, both of whom are forward-looking additions who will improve with time.
Of course, the flip side is that the actual lineups and positional pairings have varied greatly. Copa America's center back pairing, Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, played together for all of one half in the World Cup. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler saw the most time at center back in Brazil, but Besler hasn't stepped on the field once this tournament and Gonzalez isn't even on the squad. Kyle Beckerman started three games in the World Cup but only appeared briefly at the tail end of the Costa Rica blowout. DaMarcus Beasley is no longer in the national team picture, so Fabian Johnson has been flipped to left back and DeAndre Yedlin starts at right back. And then, of course, there's the aforementioned Zardes and Wood.
Constantly re-evaluating the team's long-term trajectory isn't a sane way to watch soccer, especially not a national team that, when it all comes down to it, has its performance judged by three, four, or possibly even five games played every four years. In the interim, all non-World Cup games are hybrids between competitive matches and tryouts, but always treated as referendums.
Sometimes you get that early penalty shout, and sometimes it goes against you. The Klinsmann era's paradoxical frustrations won't be assuaged with one win, or form a damning indictment with one loss. That doesn't mean we won't stop wondering if Paraguay—or whoever's next—is that one game where everything changes.