After a tournament opening 2-0 defeat to Colombia at Levi’s Stadium, the United States were criticized for lacking creative play and manager Jurgen Klinsmann was questioned for his lineup, tactics and substitution decisions.
23 days and a fourth place finish at the Copa America Centenario later, the same criticisms and questions persist about the direction that the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) is heading in.
Whether the concerns lie with the play of Michael Bradley in the midfield or the lack of playing time for both Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, there is one burning question that has been on the mind of every USMNT supporter, commentator and analyst: Was the Copa America Centenario a success for the USMNT?
And the answer to that question varies depending on what the definition of “success” should be for the USMNT.
If success is viewed as solidifying the United States’ current position in the world soccer hierarchy, as a second-tier nation that lacks the natural playmakers to become an elite side, then the tournament was an overwhelming success.
Simply look at the three nations that finished above the United States at the Copa America Centenario: Chile, Argentina and Colombia. No rational soccer fan or analyst can make the case that the United States is better than any of those three sides, especially after losing twice to the Colombians and being obliterated by Messi and company.
But taking a look at the remainder of the Copa America Centenario field, the United States should be incredibly content and even surprised to finish in the fourth position. Finishing ahead of sides like Uruguay and Brazil that disappointed many by failing to make it out of the group-stage, those analyzing the USMNT’s performance must at least give the team credit for not crashing and burning as other countries did.
Furthermore, the United States were the only CONCACAF nation to reach the semifinals of the competition, something that undoubtedly would have been brought up about a million times over had Mexico been CONCACAF’s only representative in the final four.
On the other hand, if success is viewed as the clear progression of the USMNT towards becoming an elite side with the ability to go head-to-head against the top-ranked nations in world soccer, then the tournament was an unquestionable failure.
The United States had three marquee opportunities during the tournament to, at least to a certain extent, change the narrative concerning U.S. soccer by defeating an “elite” international side. The U.S. would go on to be outscored a combined 7-0 in those matches, all defeats, against Colombia and Argentina.
Not only is this indicative of the gap that exists between the United States and the upper-echelon of world soccer, but it was a missed chance to convince the casual soccer fan that progress is being made. Their performances in those matches also failed to convince many die-hard American soccer supporters of their country’s current soccer program.
Wins against Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador won’t do much to satisfy those who have been critical of Klinsmann, as it is almost universally agreed upon that the U.S. should be beating teams of that stature on a regular basis.
The struggles that the USMNT has experienced thus far in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying still remain in the back of the minds of many American fans, and that, coupled with the lack of clear-cut improvement shown at the Copa America Centenario, has done little to change the opinion of Klinsmann for many.
Regardless of what side you are on concerning the “success” argument for the USMNT at the Copa America Centenario, a few definite takeaways can be made from the tournament.
This was the worst tournament to date as a U.S. international for Bradley, who appeared lost in the midfield and offered almost no help for the United States attack.
Chris Wondolowski has more than likely appeared in an American jersey for the final time after his lackluster effort against Argentina, and the emergence of Bobby Wood as a striker.
Wood and defender John Brooks both proved their worth to the U.S. and their ability to command each of their respective positions: Brooks through his tremendous performance against Paraguay and Wood through his match against the Costa Ricans.
However, plenty more questions and unknowns still remain regarding this American team.
What are Klinsmann’s plans at the goalkeeping position, with Brad Guzan having a poor tournament and Tim Howard making a surprising appearance in the third place match?
Will Klinsmann ever be committed to giving the younger players a chance to start for the USMNT?
Is it a bad thing that a 35 year-old Clint Dempsey could be the United States’ best player at the 2018 FIFA World Cup? And who will or could emerge around him in a starring role?
Will Gyasi Zardes be able to sort out his finishing for the national team?
What identity do the United States want to play with?
Following yet another major tournament, more questions remain surrounding the USMNT than answers, and that does nothing to help answer the question of whether (or by how much) the United States are improving as a team.