The Copa America Centenario kicks off on Friday night as hosts the United States meet South American heavyweights Colombia for the tournament opener in Santa Clara, Calif. The USA was drawn into a touch group and Jurgen Klinsmann’s intriguing squad of veterans and newcomers will be put to the rest immediately as they face Colombia, a team with a not unrealistic shot at winning the whole thing.
The Colombians are strong favorites to top Group A, which in addition to the U.S. includes Costa Rica and Paraguay. So while a win Friday would be huge for the Americans, a draw would also do just fine. Above all, the U.S. must avoid the kind of embarrassing or demoralizing loss that could set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
The USMNT and Klinsmann in particular, are under pressure to perform after a 2015 in which the team failed to build upon the success of escaping the ‘Group of Death’ at the 2014 World Cup. Klinsmann has persisted with his tinkering and experimenting and whether down to injury or innovation, has introduced some new faces into a team that still seems largely to be built around the experienced core of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman.
Results in friendlies leading up to the tournament have been promising if not spectacular. New attacking additions like Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, and Gyasi Zardes have been the primary source of goals in consecutive wins against Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Tim Howard meanwhile, is likely to start on the bench Friday with Aston Villa net-minder Brad Guzan expected to be the U.S.’s no. 1. With his improved options in attack, Klinsmann can afford to start the versatile Fabian Johnson at fullback in a backline that’s also likely to include some combination of John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Matt Besler.
Lately, Klinsmann has been favoring a 4-3-3 that can be converted into a 4-5-1 for a more defensive shape and the German tactician is likely to line his team up that way against Colombia.
The U.S. can take confidence from knowing that the Colombia that will line up at Levi’s Stadium on Friday is not quite the same team that took the 2014 World Cup by storm two years ago. Although the South American nation is currently ranked fourth in the world, it made a poor showing at last summer’s Copa in Chile, where it scored just one goal in the Group Stage on the way to being eliminated in the quarters.
Much of the impetus on Friday, and indeed throughout the tournament, will fall on James Rodriguez. The best player at the 2014 World Cup is coming off an indifferent season with Real Madrid but has been on-song when he has represented his country lately; firing Colombia to wins against Ecuador and Bolivia in recent World Cup qualifiers. Unlike at Real Madrid, where he struggles to get into the lineup, the Colombian team is built around James with striker Carlos Bacca and midfielder Juan Cuadrado providing the main supporting cast for Colombia’s photogenic no. 10.
If James is allowed to have his way on Friday night, the U.S. could be in big trouble. When the 24-year-old is on his game he is still among the world’s best. If the U.S. midfield can minimize his impact, as it did against another of the world’s best players – Cristiano Ronaldo during the World Cup group stage – it has a chance to get some kind of result against Colombia. Especially if the hard-fighting trio of Bradley, Dempsey and Jones can exert their muscle and bring the U.S.’s emerging creative talents like Pulisic, Nagbe and Zardes into the game.
Otherwise, there’s the risk that Friday night could turn into an exercise in damage control for the U.S.