A brutal first half for the United States saw them fall 2-0 to Colombia in the opening match of the Copa America Centenario. An early goal off a corner and a penalty late in the first half sent the USMNT scrambling, and now Jurgen Klinsmann and company will be desperate for a win in their next match, while Colombia are riding high on a wave of confidence after their much more assured performance in victory.
Things started off well for the United States, holding up about as well as could be expected against the lightning-quick Colombia attack. Their opponents were able to get into the final third with relative ease, but the way the USMNT set themselves up defensively allowed them to channel the attacks into less-dangerous areas while preventing supporting runs from being easy to pick out.
All that came unraveled just eight minutes into the match, though, when Colombia ran what looked like a fairly scripted play on a corner kick. Defenders Cristian Zapata and Santiago Arias were set up off the far post, facing off against Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley. While Arias and Bradley tangled as the ball rose into the air, Zapata used them as a screen against Cameron, running around the pair to shake his defender and get a free shot on goal -- one that he did not miss.
It was a major setback right from the start for the USMNT, but not one that they allowed to drop their heads. They kept playing well and holding Colombia at bay as they had before. They also managed to get forward a fair few times themselves, but struggles connecting one attacker with another in the final third kept the USMNT from mounting any kind of particularly dangerous attacks early in the first half.
Then, just as it looked like the U.S. were building up some momentum before halftime, everything fell apart again. Michael Bradley put his defenders in a lurch with a sloppy giveaway, and when DeAndre Yedlin blocked a cross in the box with his arm, Mexican referee Roberto Garcia blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. While many might call the incident "ball to hand," that Yedlin couldn't have prevented the contact, the fact that the young fullback rose his arm up to cover his face as he twisted away from the ball gave Garcia the opening to make the call. It's not a call you'll see consistently made -- handballs are the most inconsistent call anywhere on the pitch, but especially in the box -- but the raised arm did Yedlin no favors.
James Rodriguez put the resulting penalty away with ease, sending Brad Guzan the wrong way before slotting his shot into the corner, and the USMNT found themselves staring up at a 2-0 deficit going into halftime.
They needed a big change and a lot of hope in order to turn the game around at that point. Hope they had plenty of, but the change did not come, with Jurgen Klinsmann electing to hold on to his subs and not take off any of a handful of clearly struggling players.
The USMNT would continue to struggle, with tempers rising as the game pushed on and things threatening to come apart at the seams at times for the hosts. Still, they had perhaps the two best chances of the early part of the second half, with a Clint Dempsey header off a corner kick getting cleared off the line just before the hour mark, and a Dempsey free kick several minutes later requiring a very good save from David Ospina to keep out.
It was 20 minutes into the half before Klinsmann finally made his big change, removing the struggling pair of Bobby Wood and Jermaine Jones for the young, high-potential duo of Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe. The pair had changed the game when they came on in each of the USMNT's last two friendlies, and Klinsmann was hoping that they would do so again to get their team back into this game.
The U.S. were given another opening just moments later when Colombia's captain and best playmaker James Rodriguez fell heavily and left the pitch holding his shoulder. Team medics worked on him for several minutes, appearing to handle James' shoulder quite gingerly, before he tested himself on the pitch and quickly called for the substitution. His replacement, Guillermo Celis, is a very capable player, but doesn't bring the same dynamism to the game that James does. The USMNT would be hoping that change would be a big boost to their chances to come back.
They did play better going forward after that substitution, but then so did Colombia, with Carlos Bacca hitting the crossbar after Brad Guzan badly misplayed the ball. The USMNT again had the better chances, but poor execution matched with good work in goal from Ospina kept them from scoring, and that 2-0 halftime score held through to the final whistle.
It's a tough loss fro the USMNT, but not one they can't come back from. Costa Rica and Paraguay are tough opponents, but the U.S. can beat both if they learn their lessons from this match. They can still advance by finishing second in their group, so focusing in on what needs to be done from here can see the U.S. through to the knockouts. Colombia will be thrilled, though -- they have three points in the bag and the confidence that they can win in this tournament even when they're not playing at their best yet. That's worth a lot in a tournament setting, and we could see them go far because of it.
United States: Brad Guzan; Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin; Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones (Darlington Nagbe 65'), Alejandro Bedoya (Graham Zusi 85'); Bobby Wood (Christian Pulisic 65'), Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes
Colombia: David Ospina; Farid Diaz, Jeison Murillo, Cristian Zapata, Santiago Arias; Sebastian Perez (Carlos Sanchez 86'), Daniel Torres; Edwin Cardona, James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado; Carlos Bacca (Dayro Moreno 88')
Goals: Zapata (8'), Rodriguez (pen. 42')
Three things we learned
This midfield trio works -- mostly
Alejandro Bedoya may be more effective as a player in wide areas, but as a central midfielder working with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, he works just fine. It's not the best USMNT midfield we've seen, nor perhaps is it even the best midfield the current squad can utilize -- Darlington Nagbe says hello -- but Bedoya playing ahead of Bradley and alongside Jones is a midfield trio that works well and should be able to hang with just about anyone in the Copa America.
Bedoya's drive in both phases of the game and his calm, assured feel for possession make him a great pivot-point in the attack, helping link different parts of the team together in attack, or to just keep the ball in crucial moments. Bradley plays well in theory as a more defensive-focused guy behind him -- though he struggled badly in possession in this match -- and Bedoya playing that pivot role gives Jones the freedom to rampage around wreaking havoc while knowing that he's well covered. None of this would work as well with Kyle Beckerman and his declining skillset, so hopefully we see more of this trio, and see Bradley find his feet again, as the tournament progresses.
Maybe Clint Dempsey shouldn't be a false nine any more
Dempsey really struggled playing up top on his own as a false nine. When he has the size and presence of Jozy Altidore to play off, he does fine up top, but without him things have been dicey for the aging Dempsey. It's been too easy for opponents to mark him out of games -- not just in this match, but in the USMNT warmup matches last week as well. Given Dempsey's age and mediocre club form coming into the tournament, there's no reason to expect that he'll pull himself out of these doldrums. Perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann needs to consider playing someone like Bobby Wood in there and playing Dempsey either out wide or off the bench in order to give him a better chance to make a positive contribution.
Juan Cuadrado was quietly Colombia's best player
While much of the attention was on James Rodriguez and Carlos Bacca, another member of Colombia's attack was, very quietly, having himself a heck of a day. His runs into the final third consistently gave Fabian Johnson fits, including one particular play where he made an absolute fool out of Johnson and served up a chance that Bacca screwed up. If not for Cuadrado's work on the right side, Colombia would have had a much harder time creating chances -- and he actually did a very good job of keeping Johnson's forward runs in check as well, taking a potentially dangerous weapon out of the USMNT's arsenal. Other players may draw more acclaim at the end of the day, but it was Cuadrado who put them in the spotlight in this match.