The US Men’s Soccer Team had a great run to the semi-finals in the just-concluded Copa America Centenario. This was the 100th anniversary of this tourney usually reserved for South American teams only, and played in the US for the first time ever. While it was disappointing to get clobbered by Argentina, the overall team performance bodes well for the future.
Here are some things we learned about the US team in watching its six games:
- Kudos to Coach Juergen Klinsmann for setting an aggressive goal of reaching the semi-finals, and then making it. This was a bold objective in a very competitive tournament, featuring five of the world’s top nine teams: #1 Argentina, #3 Columbia, #5 Chile, #7 Brazil, and #9 Uruguay. The top three teams all advanced to the semis, as Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico fell by the wayside. In the quarters, the US bested #13 Ecuador, 2-1.
- For the first time as US coach, Klinsmann went with the same lineup, shaped in a more aggressive formation with emerging star Bobby Wood teamed up front with veteran Clint Dempsey. Dempsey led the way with three goals and two assists, disproving the doubters that said he is over the hill. The US played a more aggressive style of attacking its opponents all over the field, and it paid off. Klinsmann also found a solid back line led by young John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin. Brooks, Wood and Yedlin are emerging young stars while Dempsey and Jermaine Jones proved they have enough life to anchor the team at the 2018 World Cup.
- However, the crushing defeat at the hands of Argentina and Lionel Messi showed just how far the US has to go to move into the top ranks. The Americans played that game without three starters, while revealed just how thin its bench strength is. Klinsmann needs to jettison journeymen like Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman and give his younger players like Darlington Nagbe and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic – who has the potential to become the best player in US history – the opportunity to start rather than being subbed in with twenty minutes left.
- US Captain Michael Bradley was the major disappointment of the tourney. He was off pace with his passes the entire tournament, and a disaster against Argentina. As captain, it was Bradley’s job to lead the team and serve as quarterback in the back, yet he never showed any spark or leadership in the six games. Is Bradley over the hill at only 28, or does he need some serious coaching to get his game back on track? Instead of protecting his captain, Klinsmann needs to send him a message by benching him this fall in favor of a center midfield duo of Jones and Nagbe.
- In spite of losing 1-0 to Columbia in the third-place game, the Americans played this top-ranked team dead even. Only a brilliant save kept Dempsey’s curling direct kick out of the upper corner. Minutes later, Wood hit the post – a shot that could just as easily bounced in. The US was playing without two of its starting defenders due to injuries, as Columbia realized that subs Michael Orozco and Matt Besler couldn’t keep up the pace.
Looking ahead to World Cup 2018, Klinsmann should bring more of emerging young stars into the starting lineup and give them the experience of starting in qualifying games this fall, and drop the journeyman veterans who have proven that they can’t play at the top level. In spite of some disappointments, the US run in Copa was a big step forward and a sign of better days ahead.
Bill George is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Chairman & CEO of Medtronic, and author of Discover Your True North.