SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The last time the US and Colombian men's national teams faced each other, in November 2014, Bobby Wood was an untested forward one day shy of his 22nd birthday who came on as a substitute at Craven Cottage and couldn’t convert a late one-on-one chance in what eventually became a 2-1 defeat.
When the two sides reacquaint themselves Friday in the opening match of the Copa America Centenario, Wood could hold the key to the Americans pulling off a stunning upset of FIFA’s third-ranked team. With Jozy Altidore unavailable due to injury, only three players on Klinsmann’s 23-man squad have reached double digits in terms of scoring internationally; guaranteed starter Clint Dempsey has 49 career goals, captain Michael Bradley has 15, and local hero Chris Wondolowski has bagged 10.
The door, in other words, is standing open for Wood, who scored 17 goals this season for Union Berlin of Germany’s second division -- setting a record for an American player in either of that country’s top two tiers, and earning a multi-million-euro transfer to top-flight Hamburg.
“Now he’s getting even hungrier,” US coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of Wood on Thursday. “Now he makes a big jump to a first-division team. For us, the job is to keep him grounded, which is not very difficult because he’s a grounded kid. Now to kind of understand what is the next stage. The international level is a different level. You talk about [Colombia defender Cristian] Zapata, you talk about [Jeison] Murillo, that’s another level. This is fun.
“If I were Bobby, seeing this lineup from Colombia, I wouldn’t sleep. Not because I’m scared, but because I just want to get the game started.”
Wood is hardly alone in the US’ burgeoning youth movement. In addition to DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks on the back line, there are four other potentially critical attackers aged 25 or younger on the U.S. roster – Wood, Darlington Nagbe, Gyasi Zardes and teen sensation Christian Pulisic.
“You see the guys coming in now, the youth – Christian, Bobby, Brooks amongst others – they’ve shown they’re capable of playing at this level, and I think it’s a good breath of fresh air in the team,” US midfielder Alejandro Bedoya told reporters. “I think the past two weeks, it’s been great from everybody in training, and we’re all ready to make this, I guess, a turnaround and show the world we’re more than capable of playing against the best.”
If Wood does make an impact, it will be hard to deny Klinsmann full credit for unearthing the Honolulu native in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga and nurturing him with caps even when it seemed Wood might not be ready for that stage.
“I think it’s grown a lot,” Wood said of his comfort level as a national-team member in the last 12 months. “I got to be with the guys more and more the past year, and I think that that was important for me. Playing with the club all the time, it just made it easier to transition to playing with these guys.”
Said Klinsmann: “Young players can only grow if you give them time to play. Young players can only grow if they can fail. Last year was a learning curve; the Gold Cup was a learning curve for some of them. And it’s normal. If they don’t get these opportunities to come in and get their minutes, they will never grow. They’re on a different level now. This Copa America is huge for them.”
That brings us all the way back to Wood’s performance in the 2014 defeat to Colombia. Wood was sprung by Lee Nguyen’s nifty backheel pass in the 81st minute and bore down on goalkeeper Camilo Vargas, who was able to make a sliding save at 12 yards. The game remained tied at 1-all until Teofilo Gutierrez potted the game-winner in the 87th minute.
“We still have that in the back of our heads,” Wood said of the defeat. “They were pretty mean that game, and we’re just going to go out and give it all we got.”