Copa America Preview: Thousand-Foot View

Submitted by Brian on June 2nd, 2016 at 12:46 PM


If you're just joining us after the World Cup, hoo boy. The US has alternated impressive friendly victories over world powers with dismal performances against the likes of Jamaica and Guatemala in competitive matchups. The US had its worst-ever Gold Cup, limping through the group stage and getting bashed out of the competition by the Reggae Boys in the semi, then losing in the third-place match. Since then the USA has careened wildly from one thing to another; they're now in slight danger of missing out on the World Cup after a first-ever loss to the aforementioned Guatemalans.

Even Aussies writing for the Guardian have noticed:


Also everyone else at the Guardian:

Jurgen Klinsmann is …

… an average coach whose motivational abilities can’t disguise his tactical shortcomings. JW

… stretched too thin. The technical director of US soccer keeps interfering with the head coach in trying out new personnel to bring through, with a perpetual eye on a distant event horizon. The coach is unable to settle on a side with all this going on, and should maybe take that up with the technical director, but the technical director … etc etc. GP

… still unsure of his best team and tactics and surely ripe for replacement if the Copa is a catastrophe. TD

… relying on new blood. Pulisic, Brooks, Nagbe and Wood have excited in recent matches. Will they finally fulfill Klinsmann’s promise of proactive soccer? DM

… always a motivator, never a tactician. Klinsmann’s Achilles heel is that he doesn’t have a plan B. LME

For Michigan fans the parallels to Brady Hoke are many. Good recruiter; tactically deficient, in over his head, tends to clap a lot.

Some good things have occurred. Klinsmann was ahead of the curve on both Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood, and did call up Darlington Nagbe the instant he was eligible. (Starting him seems to be a bridge too far at the moment.) Along with the aforementioned three, the emergence of Deandre Yedlin as a legit EPL right back and John Brooks's continued development give the USA a player pool that is at least on par with the best they've ever had—even without Jozy Altidore, who will miss the tournament with another hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, there appears to be a light at the end of a long dark tactical tunnel. But first…


If any eurosnob you come across attempts to defend Klinsmann by trashing the USA's current talent level, please stab them. The USA got out of a World Cup group in 2010 with a striker corps of Altidore, Robbie Findlay, Edson Bubble, and Herculez Gomez. Fringe EPL defender Jay DeMerit, Belgian-league star Oguchi Onyewu, and either Jonathan Bornstein or an out-of-position Carlos Bocanegra were most of the defense. Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu split time in the midfield; neither of those guys ever made it in a top league. (Edu did have a good run at Rangers.)

This USA team figures to feature:

  • More or less the same goalies, Bradley, and Dempsey
  • Two regular Bundesliga starters (Johnson, Brooks) and a guy just signed by Hamburg after scoring 17 in the German second flight(Wood)
  • Two regular EPL starters (Cameron, Yedlin)
  • A regular for Nantes (Bedoya)
  • A former Schalke captain (Jones)
  • aaaand Gyasi Zardes

Off the bench they'll bring Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe instead of one the aforementioned strikers and Edu/Clark. Maybe the talent isn't better, but for it not to be the dropoff from Landon Donovan to Not Landon Donovan would have to be stunning.

Anyone who tries to tell you the USA doesn't have the talent to get out of this group or not get massively outshot at the Gold Cup last summer is the kind of soccer hipster who should be deported.


The USMNT's long-standing lack of commitment to any approach, lineup, or even center-back pairing finally appeared to resolve itself into a formation and even a starting 11 over the past few friendlies. It looks like the US is set to deploy a 4-3-3 close to this:


This more or less makes sense. Without Altidore the US does not have a traditional burly center forward. They do have a couple of fast buggers and one ornery Texan with a nose for goal and sweet moves. The 4-3-3 accommodates these gents.

A lot of commenters hate Dempsey as a "lone forward" up top, including's Matt Doyle. His desired formation inserts Wood up top and has Dempsey as a highly nominal right winger.* Doyle is an excellent analyst who I agree with most of the time, but not here. While Dempsey is without question the USA's most skilled and dangerous attacker, he's never been an industrious player. Now that he's into his 30s, expecting him to cover on defense is foolhardy. Putting him (again, nominally) up top allows him to marshal his energy reserves and allows a much more spry player to provide cover when the game demands it. Zardes, for all his flaws, runs his ass off to support on D.

Dempsey's best as a striker when the US is out of possession. When the US gets the ball his natural tendency to drop deep provides center backs with a dilemma: allow Dempsey time and space to turn in or near the final third, or challenge him and hope the space you're leaving doesn't bite your ass. Bolivia chose the latter and gave up chance after chance, including the opening goal:

In fancy talk this is Dempsey operating as a "false nine." (Fancy people will refer to the lead striker as the 9.) Dempsey facilitated several dangerous opportunities by playing like this; in addition to the goal you  can catch him playing Wood in at around 1:30 on US Soccer's highlights of the game.

Dempsey is well suited to this kind of play. He's crafty, he's skilled with the ball at his feet, opponents are generally wary about getting too close because he has the ability to smoke 'em. This makes sense. Maybe. Probably.

We don't know it makes sense because Klinsmann has spent every friendly he's had on something that is not this. Whether the US can sustain this in a competitive match against a good opponent is unknown. Whether Klinsmann will even stick with this setup is unknown. He has rumbled about going with Beckerman when opponents deploy an attacking midfielder, ominously.

But still, I'll take something that looks like it makes sense, and might remain the same for a few danged games consecutively.

*[You may have heard me describe a 4-3 under in football as a defense halfway between the 3-4 and the under's 4-3 predecessor, the 4-3 even. Positional designations in soccer are far less rigid but the same principle applies here: a 4-3-3 often turns into a system that is a hybrid between one- and two-striker systems. If Dempsey is deployed on the "right wing" he is going to function like a slightly right-biased underneath striker.]


Wolverine In Exile

June 2nd, 2016 at 12:59 PM ^

I expect Klinsmann to demand the forward corps run ragged and press knowing that he has Morris, Pulisic, and Nagbe ready to insert. Because of the development of Brooks & Yedlin, substitutions won't have to be wasted on defensemen. I expect a fast attacking counter set performance, and I frankly wouldn't be surprised is USMNT wins its group. 

OTOH, if the injury bug pops up and Guzan sucks / Tim Howard has aged noticably, we could be out without winning a game. Highly variable outcomes for me which makes this tourney interesting.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:10 PM ^

Brought in Wondo instead.  Which, honestly makes sense.  Morris' skill set is Zardes' and Wood's.  Wondo brings something else to the table.  But hey, if they want to make an overall strategy moving forward of a 4-3-3 with fast physical outside forwards, then Morris really adds to that strike force, especially with Pulisic maturing into a senior team starter as I imagine he will in the upcoming years.

Wolverine In Exile

June 2nd, 2016 at 1:14 PM ^

Sure he can score goals in MLS, but he's shown time and again he's just not a world class striker. Morris, even at this age, seems to have that dynamic scoring ability shown by world class strikers. Sure there's a different skill set, but unless Wondo is there specifically to replace Dempsey in case of injury / fatigue, Morris's skill should have won the day.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:25 PM ^

I mean, I don't think Wondo is world class at all, but he is a veteran precense and he does understand space in ways I haven't seen out of Morris.  Admittedly, I don't watch a ton of MLS, so maybe I'm way off here.  Morris is still new and his general approach seems to revolve around more of 'be fast, be stong'.  Which is fine; it's a great starting place.  I hope he develops that more with time.  I personsally like attackers, like Thomas Muller for example, who build their games around understanding space and defenses without relying on overwhelming athleticism.  Mostly because I feel like those guys can stick around longer. 


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:45 PM ^

I would also add that Morris is decidedly one-footed at this point in time. His best attributes right now are his athleticism, energy and effort. Wondo knows the position and understands space, is better technically at this point and provides you with effort and energy as well. 

Morris will get his time if he develops. Our striking corps is already pretty unproven on an international stage with Wood and Zardes. Having Dempsey as the only internationallyt experienced forward is probably not a good idea. 


June 2nd, 2016 at 10:15 PM ^

Nothing Wondo does ever counts. That's the problem. He hasn't delivered a thing in too many opportunities. Very poor judgment by JK to include him. 

Orozco is the other stupid roster move.

I have zero confidence in JK. If we make it out of the group, it will be because of our talent, which is, as Brian stated, vastly under-rated.


June 3rd, 2016 at 7:27 PM ^

Wondo scores a goal about every three appearances. Morris has one international goal in 9 caps. Not like he's been putting them in the net at a decent rate. And he has struggled as a pro until recently.Wondo is a consistent scorer as a pro. We have two other unproven guys at forward in Zardes and Wood. Having a third isn't a good idea IMO. Morris' time will come. Just not yet.


June 2nd, 2016 at 10:23 PM ^

I think Wondo is the right choice as Morris really struggled with the sounders when he was on the wing in their 4-3-3. It wasn't until he moved to the center that he started playing well. So he really would only backup Dempsey's position, not Zardes or Woods. so we already would have the fast/athletic on the wings, so a smart technical player in the middle (Wondo) would make sense


June 2nd, 2016 at 2:45 PM ^

that JK is focusing on building up the D first, but you can't ignore the talent that is at his disposal on offensive side. And he can't not use it. With his D, and his depth at forwards......we should have been qualified for Moscow about 12 months ago. And he's not going to be able to just let Pulisic sit on the bench.......that train might be a bit overhyped, but it's full steam ahead right now

I think Klinnsmans seat should be on fire right now. If he doesn't do something special in the Copa, I think USA needs to scratch the "JK experiment"


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:07 PM ^

I was hoping you were going to cover the Centenario during our long off season with only a few games of softball left to sustain us.  Look, I've got nothing original to say about Klinsmann.  He needs to be an assistant coach.  He motivates well and recruits well.  Seemingly decent eye for talent.  The technical director aspects are a big question mark at this point because it takes so damn long to pump a steady stream of youth to the senior team.  Missing out on the Olympics is a big black mark though. 

Whatever.  He's not getting fired unless he doesn't qualify for the World Cup.  And right now, I disagree with you here, the US is not in 'slight danger' of missing the WC yet.  They have an eminately crushable St. Vincent on the road then T&T at home.  Even if they just draw against T&T, goal differential against St. Vincent will see the US through to the Hex.  All you can hope for (and the Hoke/Zook comparisons are spot on) is that he either sees the light in the coaching/tactics aspect, or he loads the system for the next coach who enters in a few years. 

Anyway, I think the line-up you put out seems like the logical one.  But hey, you never know.  I could also see him put Beckerman in and compact it into some nominal 4-1-4-1 against Columbia given Rodriguez and their passing skill through mid-field.  I say stick with the 4-3-3 and use Zardes and Wood to harass the Columbia defense as they try and play out the back.  Both those guys put in great work rates for whatever other flaws they may have.  Also, foul the heck out of Columbia.  Go full CONCACAF on them.  Their tallest buy is like 6'1" and they don't do well on set peices.  Make it an ugly game.

Yinka Double Dare

June 2nd, 2016 at 1:20 PM ^

He's better suited as a technical director. His motivation, name, and recruiting are all big assets there, it helps him get things done that have been sorely needed for a long time in order for US soccer to take the next steps needed. The MLS was kind of on its way to academies but I think Klinsmann helped that push. There's no way the US would ever take the next step in development without more ability to get kids into elite training and programs without it costing said kids piles and piles of money as it has for many years. We're frankly very lucky that we have Clint Dempsey at all; there are probably 10, 100, who knows how many like him who also grew up without money but whose parents wouldn't or couldn't make the sacrifices (both financial and time) his parents did to get him to those clubs. Those kids play for their crappy high school coach that doesn't really know all that much about how to coach the game and thus the kids never develop at all.


June 2nd, 2016 at 2:04 PM ^

I think the point he's making is that in a pay to play club/academy system, talented kids whose folks lack money end up playing high school soccer where they see really limited development, or even have their development harmed by Route 1 tactics. 

I forget all the details of Dempsey's story, but I think he got a scholarship to play club soccer in Dallas but it involved his parents doing some kind of hellacious 150 mile communte from East Texas.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:03 PM ^

The US best lineup performance wise has included pulisic in the middle with Bradley protecting the defense. He shouldn't start every game yet but if the US is playing a team that is going to bunker in and let us have possession he is the best option.

 I'm annoyed we can't find a better lb currently because Johnson's best position is lm and is what he plays at the club level.

Yinka Double Dare

June 2nd, 2016 at 1:23 PM ^

I might be in the minority but I actually like having Johnson as a left back along with Yedlin at right. It gives them fullbacks who are also plenty gifted in the offensive half and I think can allow them to actually attack teams better. Both are going to be good with overlapping runs, and can take guys off the dribble/attack the box.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:29 PM ^

I think most, including me, don't mind Johnson at LB, but just wish there was a decent replacement so we could use Johnson at mid.  That's more of an overall upgrade.  And as Jones and Bedoya start aging out in the next few years, having Johnson, a legit high level club player, at mid will be wonderful going forward.  But that's contingent on getting someone who is good enough at LB to actually force that move.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:14 PM ^

Soccer formations are extremely fluid but these days they generally use a GK, four-person defense line and 1-2 strikers.  Forwards can cover on defense and defenders can sometimes ambush or do the libero thing but for sanity's sake I consider anyone expected to regularly participate in both offense and defense to be a midfielder. . . at which point all formations are basically 4-5-1 (rarely, 4-4-2).  I know that's going to annoy the crap out of someone, but. . . tough.  No need to make it more complicated than that, because the complexity is in the fluidity of the play itself.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:54 PM ^

In the world game both the RB and LB are big offensive threats for the counter and overlapping runs. They basically act as wingers and you really need at least one of them who can get forward a bunch. However I wouldn't describe it as a 2-7-1 as they are still defense first.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:17 PM ^

Just praying we don't go the Beckerman route. Bradley has looked great in defense and as an initiator at the 6. My only worry down the center of the field is the lack of familiarity between Brooks and Cameron. I'm hoping Bradley's prescence and the box-to-box games of Jones and Bedoya should be enough support if they can avoid falling out of position. 

Up top Dempsey needs to raise his game like he has in previous big stages. Whether due to age, form, or tactical fit, he made little impact in the warmups. This XI seem designed to get to 60' level before Klinsmann adds some creativity to the mix with Nagbe and/or Pulisic to maybe steal 3 points if Dempsey doesn't have a moment. 

Copa should be exciting to watch, and with Navas out for Costa Rica our chances to get out of the group appear strong. 


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:27 PM ^

"Anyone who tries to tell you the USA doesn't have the talent to get out of this group or not get massively outshot at the Gold Cup last summer is the kind of soccer hipster who should be deported."

That's just flat out wrong.  Colombia is obviously way deeper.  Paraguay/Costa Rica both arguably have more talent than the US.  It sounds like you just overrate the US talent pool.  I'm not a huge fan of Klinsman, but come on.

The Gold Cup there isn't really an excuse for, but if they don't get of the group it would be pretty understandable.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:42 PM ^

Don't think Brian is arguing that the US has more talent than Columbia.  Or that the US should even win the group.  But it should get second.  US is better than Paraguay, and who says Paraguay has better talent?  The mast majority of their roster plays is South American/Mexico leagues and they have no world class heavy hitter.  And the US should be at least equal footing with Costa Rica especially when they're without Navas for the tourney.  The US has the talent to get out of this group.


June 2nd, 2016 at 2:09 PM ^

But it is easy to make an argument that CR and Parguay are more talented.  Not to say that talent excuses us from competing, but we don't have the talent to beat those teams based on talent alone...

For Paraguay, Iturbe, Sanabria, and Derlis Gonzalez are better than anyone on the US roster.  For Costa Rica, they same could be send for Ruiz and Campbell.  So yeah, if every team in your group has multiple players that are better than your best player, that's generally not a super good sign.


grand river fi…

June 2nd, 2016 at 2:51 PM ^

Colombia is bringing Bacca, Cuadrado, James, Zapata and Murillo.  They have a bunch of lesser know Atletcio Nacional players in their squad (Moreno, Perez, Aguilar), but they were the most impressive team in the Copa LIbertadores group stage and are now in the Semi-Finals.  James is likely leaving Madrid and will be extremely motivated to impress after not getting a lot of playing time. Additionally, the Colombian's won't have any issues with the heat and humidity in the USA, so the horrible soccer weather shouldn't effect them much.  I wouldn't overlook them.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:58 PM ^

Brian's point is the US has the talent to get out of the group. No one is saying we are better than Columbia (although last I heard they may be playing more of a young squad) and we do have more talent that Costa Rica without navas and Paraguay period. It's close but the point is that talent won't be the reason we fail.

And there is zero excuse for the gold cup last year. If we had dominated games and randomly lost 2-1 in a semi where we out shot a team 4-1, you could chalk it up to luck. Instead, we were just flat out bad.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:27 PM ^

I would vote for a 4-1-3-2 with Bradley as the 6 and Nagbe as the 10 (replacing Zardes in your lineup). Then you have Zardes as a sub for Dempsey and Pulicic as a sub for Jones (them dudes are gettin old).


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:57 PM ^

Good to know.  I've been going off of what I've read from some Timber's fans who say Nagbe plays more box-to-box with a lot of movement more out of neccesity than that really being his natural game.  Sample size is limited with the USMNT, but he seems to play more advanced for the US.  Maybe I'm just wrong?  So classifying him as a natural '10' is probably wrong, but I would like to see him play more advanced, initiating attacks.  But hey, just get him on the damn field.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:31 PM ^

While the Gold Cup was a cluster****, and they should get out of this group (SPI gives them a 57% chance), I think it's wholly unfair to use the team that punched the most above it's weight as a comparison. It would be like Boise St going "we won the 2007 Fiesta Bowl with a bunch of kids no one bothered recruiting, we should be amazing now that we can get some halfway decent recruits"

RHammer - SNRE 98

June 2nd, 2016 at 1:44 PM ^

i think this formation is actually highly suited to Bradley's best tendencies as well (marshalling control of the midfield through possession and clever distribution - see the beaut of a switch to wood v Bolivia here:; i like having him just in front of the center backs, allowing Jones & Bedoya to roam a bit, and bossing the midfield while keeping it all in front of him.


June 2nd, 2016 at 2:10 PM ^

It's the US's best lineup when the US has possession. Defensively, Bradley has a tendency to chase too much when he plays in front of the defense, which takes away from his role screening the center backs. I could see starting with Beckerman against Columbia just to provide more defensive discipline while going with the lineup above in the last two group games.


June 2nd, 2016 at 1:47 PM ^

4-3-3 requires Bradley to stay in a defensive role and Dempsey to stay up top. Neither have proven they have the discipline to not float around. Dempsey needs to be behind the striker, he doesn't hold the ball. Johnson is out of position; Champions League quality player playing out of position makes little sense when there are options there. Pulisic should start in an attacking mid role. It's the best back four in a decade. If Dempsey and Howard were on form, we would be formidable. Love Jozy, but addition by subtraction?? Jones is talented but Columbia is feisty, I expect he will get a yellow or maybe even a red.

Columbia is over-rated. They have talent but none of their players are tearing up their respective leagues. Costa Rica is equal to the USMNT. Paraguay can frustrate. We can go top of the group or bottom.

This, maybe swap Nagbe for Johnson, Johnson for Castillo.


Pulisic Dempsey 

Johnson Bedoya


Castillo Brooks Cameron Yedlin


June 2nd, 2016 at 2:11 PM ^

Bradley's best position is at number 6 role.

JK thinks Bradley's best position is a number 10 role.

Bradley plays 1-1/2 to 2 friendlies as a number 6.

Fans think JK has finally sees what we all see.


I guess the jury is out still, but how has anything JK has done as the USMNT coach make anyone feel he is going to keep Bradley as 6 moving forward? I mean line-up after line-up and article after article have done nothing but praise Klinsmann for finally getting it right. But do all of these people really think Bradley isn't going to slide right back into the 10 spot once these games mean something? I mean, all JK was trying to do in the friendlies was get Pulisic and Nagbe on the field to see some action without taking his precious Bradley off the pitch.