The United States men's national team takes on Colombia in the Copa America opener on Friday night (9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), and we hope we're not spoiling anything by saying the Americans are slight underdogs. If they get a draw out of this match, everyone will be pretty thrilled, and feeling like they can win their next two games to win Group A and avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Colombia's probably going to have more of the ball than the USMNT, and they'll probably have more shots too, but those numbers aren't everything. Here's what you should be watching for to figure out what each team is trying to do and who's executing their gameplan better.
1. Where is Michael Bradley?
The way the USMNT plays is often defined by the positioning of one player -- Bradley. He's played a myriad of roles under both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bob Bradley. Where he plays from game to game is anyone's guess.
After his performances in recent friendlies, most are hoping that he plays as the deepest player in a three-man midfield. He struggled in the first half in a friendly against Ecuador when he was played farther up the pitch, but he excelled when moved into a deeper role, and he performed well in that position against Bolivia.
But Bradley's not a lock to start in a deeper position. He could also play as the linking player between a defensive midfielder and a more advanced one, or he could be asked to play farther up the pitch, as an advanced playmaker. You might hear the match commentators (or your friends on Twitter) refer to these roles as the 6, 8 and 10, respectively.
If Bradley's the deepest midfielder, Klinsmann wants him to bring the ball up and start attacks. If he's in a slightly more advanced role, Klinsmann thinks he needs Bradley pressing, and to make an impact in both transition phases. And if Bradley's behind a striker, get ready for a long game, because that means the USMNT is playing defensively.
2. Where is James Rodriguez getting the ball?
Colombia's best player is James Rodriguez, and they often struggle to create scoring chances when he's not getting on the ball in dangerous places. He can play on the wing or behind a striker, but where he plays will probably depend on whether Cafeteros manager Jose Péckerman wants to play one striker or two. In any event, James will want to get on the ball 20-to-30 yards from goal, in central areas. If the USMNT is doing a good job at stopping him from getting the ball in that pocket of space, they're going to have a decent chance to prevent big scoring opportunities.
3. Are the USMNT forwards moving to create angles for outlets?
The USMNT has some talent in defense and goal, but there isn't a team in the world that can withstand constant pressure without any kind of relief. The Americans have solid ball-winners in midfield too, but where they often struggle against top teams is relieving pressure by finding forwards with good early passes.
Some of this is on the defense and midfielders, but it's on the forwards to move off the ball and make themselves available for a pass, then make good decisions with the ball when they receive it under pressure. If the forwards are standing still and the only transition pass the USMNT can make is launching the ball up the pitch and chasing it, they're going to be in trouble. Shot volume is important, and the easiest way to prevent shots is to make sure your opponent doesn't have the ball all the time.
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