The United States, victors in their last three friendlies and a must-win World Cup qualifier before that, begin their journey in the Copa America Centenarioagainst Colombia in Santa Clara on Friday night (9:30 pm ET, FS1, Univision, UDN).
It feels, at least a little bit, like a different era for the USMNT. As of late, they've played with a type of urgency that's been missing over the last two years, since the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps the change was brought about by the proximity of this tournament, a once-in-a-century opportunity, or perhaps it was the near-death experience of losing 2-0 to Guatemala (they responded with a 4-0 thumping in said must-win qualifier four days later).
Or maybe it was a combination of those things, as well as a smart and hopefully semi-permanent formation switch to the 4-3-3. The US have run out in that formation in three of the last four games, and while formations should never be confused for tactics, putting your talent in a formation that maximizes (or at least doesn't diminish) their talents can make for a tactical structure that's more cohesive and more flexible. The fact that it puts the team's best player -- Michael Bradley -- in his best spot -- defensive midfield -- is an added bonus.
So while the US are not exactly soaring at the moment, they are at least flapping their wings and moving forward. That's a welcome change after a two-year death spiral that nearly ended World Cup qualifying before most casual fans realized it had begun.
With that as a preamble, let's look at the match-up against Los Cafeteros …
What they'll do: High & hard pressure
Folks tend to think of Colombia as an elegant and stylish attacking team, first and foremost. When you have players like James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Bacca, that tends to be the highlight on the scouting report. And to be clear: The US can't let those three guys in particular, as well as a few others like Edwin Cardona and Marlos Moreno, get on the ball, get comfortable and set the rhythm. Whatever lineup the US come out in, they have to be willing to harry and disrupt the Colombian passing machine.
But they also have to be wary of Colombia's willingness to press high and murder teams that play sloppy out of the back.
Here are the highlights from their most recent World Cup qualifier, a 3-1 win over a good Ecuador team:
The first and third Colombia goals came when they forced turnovers at the midfield stripe as Ecuador tried to play out of the back; the second came a few seconds after an attacking throw-in following a long sequence in which Ecuador were forced to defend.
They absolutely smothered Ecuador in that game.
How to solve it: Kill 'em on the break
One of the more disappointing aspects of the Jurgen Klinsmann Era has been a reduced proficiency on the counterattack, long the US's bread-and-butter. But if you lack cohesion overall, you're almost certainly going to lack cohesion in transition from the defense to attack -- which is, more and more, the most crucial moment of the game.
The US, with an infusion of youth and speed in the form of overlapping right back DeAndre Yedlin and red-hot striker Bobby Wood, once again have the horses to get out and run, and both are in form. If they are given a chance to run, they will, and not even the gazelles on Colombia will catch them in space.
The problem is that initial pass through the defense and into the attack. The likely starting central defensive pairing of Geoff Cameron and John Brooks can both provide top-level service, but given the Colombia press, it's probably going to have to be "safety first" from those two -- simple touches that break the press, rather than burning it to the ground with one look. That puts the onus on whoever the defensive midfielder is (Bradley or Kyle Beckerman) to A) be available for the easy outlet, and B) be ready to spread a killer ball to the flanks when the opportunity is there.
Catching a stretched-out Colombia on the break inside of 15 minutes is the ideal start for the US.
What we'll do: Set-piece dominance
While the US aren't the counterattacking juggernaut they used to be, they're still a big, athletic and dominant aerial team. Even when things were going their absolute worst against Mexico in last October's CONCACAF Cup, they still did stuff like this:
Cameron, Brooks and Clint Dempsey are all A+ aerial targets. Wood, Gyasi Zardes and Jermaine Jones will all get into the box on restarts and scrap. Bradley's service is probably too valuable, but if Klinsmann want him in the box on restarts, Bradley knows what to do when he gets there.
How they'll solve it: Hope
If the US get a bunch of set pieces in this game, they will score one. Colombia aren't lying to themselves about that.
“Surely, it’s a small problem we have right now and one we’ve worked on, focused mainly on set pieces,” center back Cristian Zapata said to our Diego Pinzon before Wednesday’s practice session at the San Jose Earthquakes' training complex. “The team has lost its presence [inside the area]. We’ve got to be more alert and concentrated.”
Haiti got their goal against Colombia last week off a corner kick; Ecuador's came off a direct kick in that 3-1 loss; Bolivia, who nearly overturned a 2-0 deficit but fell just short in a 3-2 loss, constantly troubled Los Cafeteros on set pieces.
What does it mean for the US?
No matter how well the US play, they're going to have to absorb some pressure and play through a bunch of smart and tactically sophisticated attackers and midfielders. I think Colombia's coach, Jose Pekerman, is a little overrated in terms of his in-game management -- he makes pretty bad substitutions and generally holds onto the good subs he does make too long -- but he always has his teams prepared entering any given match.
They will be prepped for this one as well, and they're not a one-trick pony; it's not all high press or nothing. Expect them to be particularly ruthless working down their own right-hand side, with Cuadrado trying to pin probable left back Fabian Johnson -- ****sigh**** -- deep and exploit his propensity for mental brownouts on the defensive side of the ball.
If Johnson holds his own in that fight and the central defensive and central midfield structure are right, then the US can feel confident about going toe-to-toe with anyone. However, given Klinsmann's penchant for tinkering, those remain a pair of giant "ifs."