Just in case you forgot just how hard advancing out of Group A is going to be in Copa America Centenario, we go as always to ESPN's legendary stat guru Paul Carr to blow your minds.
I mean, that's a top 5 team in the FIFA Rankings in Colombia that has a 2 out of 3 chance, give or take, to advance into the knockout stages. Not just win the group, I mean just surviving. That's ridiculous.
And yet, here we are. The start of Copa America 2016 and right off the bat the two best teams in Group A squaring off. A win means one team is probably all but assured to top the group and likely advance, a loss puts someone behind a really large 8-ball.
But even a loss today would not end either teams hopes of the knockout stages, in a group like this it would not shock me if four points is good enough to advance, much like the US did in the World Cup two years ago. What's most important for the United States right now is building what worked in their winning streak of friendlies leading up to the tournament. Even if the United States doesn't win today, a draw would be perfectly fine in the grand scheme, maintaining their level of play and tactics from wins over Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Bolivia over the past couple of weeks is key against a top team like Colombia.
So what did work in those friendlies?
The Fullback Conundrum
Here's the thing. Fabian Johnson is not just the USA's best left-sided player, he's probably their best wide player period in the entire player pool. Winger, outside mid or fullback, right side, left side, it doesn't matter, Johnson is probably the best player at every single one of those positions for the Americans.
The conundrum lies in the fact that, despite Jurgen Klinsmann saying anyone can play left back, not everyone can fill the role for this particular USMNT team. Johnson is being tasked with primarily providing width and service from the backline which allows the wingers, who are all forwards, to stay a little more central. In theory, this can work, with attackers like Gyasi Zardes, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, Alejandro Bedoya and even Graham Zusi pinching in, it gives both Johnson and right back DeAndre Yedlin room to operate in on the flanks to support the attack.
The good news now is that the US actually has a legitimate backup on the left in Edgar Castillo who replaced the injured Timmy Chandler earlier. This gives Klinsmann the option of using Castillo at left back and pushing Johnson forward if he needs to, either to start a game if he's looking for a particular matchup or late in games if the US is trailing.
Either way, Johnson's going to be a vital player for the US on both sides of the ball, but if he's able to get an assist or two during the group stages, that's probably going to mean results and advancement for the USMNT.
The Midfield Triangle
During the warm up matches to Copa America, Klinsmann deployed an inverted midfield triangle of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley with Kyle Beckerman sitting in behind them. In theory, I actually liked this idea because it game Jones and Bradley perhaps fewer defensive responsibilities and more freedom to go forward.
In practice, well, Michael Bradley is just far and away a better holding midfielder and can put out far more fires than Beckerman can on defense. On offense, giving Bradley the ability to see more of the field helps the offense out because he's able to find the right people in the best positions. Jones is always going to wander around and do Jones-esque things but the revelation in this set up was actually the play of Alejandro Bedoya and Darlington Nagbe.
Bedoya in particular was outed just two years ago as not a holding midfielder in Brazil, to the surprise of no one. But while he's been a regular for the US midfield, it's usually be in a wide role. Now, with two true center mids in front of a holder, Bedoya gets a partner to work off of and his tactical awareness is going to put him in positions that will be beneficial to Jones.
Bedoya's going to find a lot of space to work with thanks to and despite Jones' lack of discipline as far as positioning goes. This works well for Bedoya who can cover for Jones and cycle the play around with Bradley and it lets Ale be another advanced option for Jones and Bedoya out of the back when going forward. The inverted triangle gets to highlight everyone's strengths, especially Bradley's, while letting Bedoya work off of Jones being Jones. Klinsmann made the tactical adjustment, and then found the players to make it work. A very un-Klinsmann like thing that might just work wonders for the US going forward past Copa America.
Nagbe is just a true playmaker, and like Bradley in his CONCACAF dominating prime a few years ago, causes so many good things when he gets to turn and dribble up field. Even if Nagbe is starting on the bench, he's going to be a huge impact sub because he is the type of player many have longed for in the US lineup. It wouldn't surprise me to see him get a spot start, especially for the aging Jones at some point, or to see him feature as a lone CAM ahead of a Bradley and Beckerman / Perry Kitchen holding partnership.
The Attacking Trio and the summer of Wood
Call it a 4-3-3- or a 4-1-4-1, I really don't care. But the attacking spearhead for the United States has usually featured some combination of Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey in recent years. Well, Jozy is injured and Clint is getting up there in age so that leaves us with the hottest American striker in the world:
Yes, and let me reiterate that Bobby F. Wood should be starting up top regardless of Jozy's health because right now, he's playing that well. The issue is not Wood up top for the Americans, it's where specifically he's playing.
Wood is by far the best lone striker option the US has, yet Klinsmann is trying to trot out Dempsey as a target man with two better number 9's in Zardes and Wood flanking him. This, for the most part, doesn't work against good teams (see the first half against Ecuador) but can work against bad teams (see Bolivia and CONCACAF games). The trick against Colombia and the rest of the fixtures in Group A, is getting this group either in the right positions or figuring out another personnel lineup that can be effective.
Wood should be a sure starter up top, and I can live with Zardes on one of the wings if I must. Though I doubt Zardes' ability defensively as a winger and his first touch is no better than mine was in high school, if Klinsmann's going to keep using him out wide I can live with Dempsey starting there as well. Deuce was once a great two way player and right now I'd rather have his creative, trying stuff mentality out wide than his horrific lack of being a #9 and lack tactical discipline in the middle.
If Klinsmann figures out the right balance up top and the rest of his formation tinkering continues to be effective, well the US is going to be looking pretty good for not just Copa America, but the rest of the 2018 World Cup cycle as well.
I am going to concede there are limits to my knowledge of Colombia, so check out Part Two of the awlays excellent The Yanks Are Coming preview from Neil Blackmon and company.
But basically Colombia are going to be dangerous every single time they touch the ball on the attack. James Rodriguez is among the best players in this tournament regardless of his playing status at Real Madrid right now. However, as good as Rodriguez is there's a bigger problem for the Americans known as Carlos Bacca.
Bacca is a true target man in every sense and he's pretty good at what he does. The US centerbacks, likely John Brooks and Geoff Cameron, are going to have their hands full dealing with him and the space he's undoubtedly going to create with all the attention he's going to get. That's why it's important in this match to have someone like Michael Bradley who can recover with pace and put out fires if Colombia starts a counter or finds a wide open player. The USA can be an effective scrambling defensive unit, but if they're forced to do that often enough, Colombia will make them pay.
Colombia have favored a 4-5-1 in the past, with Rodriguez sitting behind Bacca but don't forget about Juan Cuadrado, the Chelsea man had success on loan in Italy and was another star two summers ago in Brazil at the World Cup. There's also two youngsters in Roger Martinez and Marlos Moreno likely waiting to come off the bench as well. If Cristian Zapata of AC Milan can anchor down a very young and inexperienced backline, Colombia is one of the biggest threats to go all the way.
The United States and Colombia kick-off from Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California tonight at with coverage beginning on FS1 and Unimas at 9:30pm Eastern.