On Friday, the US Men’s National Team kicks off one of the world’s most prestigious soccer tournaments against a dark horse favorite on home soil. The enormity of the US hosting the Copa America Centenario – especially with the controversy over its selection as the host – cannot be understated. Much like the 1994 World Cup, this tournament is the US’s opportunity to show the soccer world that it is a soccer nation. In terms of hosting, there will likely be little drama. The stadiums will be full and the matchday experience for fans and teams alike should be smooth, while sponsors and networks will rake in money.
That leaves the one entity that has the most to benefit from a successful Copa America, the US team. Since the final whistle blew against Belgium in 2014, the team has had a series of ups and downs, with controversies real and manufactured seemingly threatening the job security of Jurgen Klinsmann. Almost two years after the World Cup, the US still lacks a firm depth chart for the back four, the next great American striker has yet to truly emerge, and the coming crop of young talent has yet to overwhelmingly impress at the international level. While there is talent in the US pool and some young stars in the making, the US Soccer Federation is looking at a senior team with too many questions and a youth system that have provided too few answers, considering the rhetoric and resources placed in it.
With all these questions surrounding the team, and the 2018 World Cup just 24 months away, what should be our expectations for this team in this tournament? The answer will probably differ from what many predict the US will do, especially since a prediction may depend on how the person feels about Klinsmann. Looking at this team and this tournament in the abstract, what should be “success” for a team like the US, a country trying to break into the upper echelon of international soccer and the host of the tournament?
Looking at the field, there is definite depth in this tournament. The usual powers like Brazil and Argentina will be strong, but up-and-coming countries like Colombia also have the ability in this smaller field to get hot and win the tournament. The marketing of the tournament is spot on – a ton of big names will be coming to US soil representing their country. However, we have already seen Luis Suarez and Keylor Navas drop out due to injuries, and as with the World Cup having the tournament so close to the end of many soccer seasons could lead to injuries for key players during the Copa.
Having the tournament in the US also cannot be overstated. Even though some crowds may be a majority of your opponent’s fans, the ease of travel, the quality of the facilities, and the overall fan conduct removes an advantage opponents have when hosting the US in CONCACAF or other major tournaments. Traveling to the US for matches is now common, so the advantage cannot be oversold, but this is a factor is how we should judge this team’s success in the tournament.
Finally, we have to look at where the US is and where it is going. No doubt, qualifying for and preparing for a good run at World Cup 2018 is critical, and this tournament could help with that. Yet the US team has seemingly hit few major milestones under Klinsmann, besides one-off victories over big names. Looking at his record, the German coach has one eerily similar to Bob Bradley, and he is not being paid millions more to be Bob Bradley 2.0. This tournament would have a different feeling if the youth teams were qualifying or competing for championships at their level, but few if any are. Thus the pressure is on the more visible senior team to show the progress promised by Klinsmann upon his hiring.
Considering all of these factors, it is clear the US is not a favorite nor should be judged to be one. However, the team also is beyond the point of moral victories. In a group with one very good team and two with major questions, advancing to the knockout round is a must. When there, the big names come into play and the US should not only be competitive, but actually advance to the semi-finals. Then, and only then, should we judge this tournament a success, because reaching that level means the US had defeated at least one world class team. That kind of victory, and being close to a trophy in a tournament, goes beyond a moral victory and should help compel the US forward into qualifying and Russia.
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