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Copa America Centenario

U.S.-Argentina Preview: Fast Starts and Finding Fullbacks

Jurgen Klinsmann has several big decisions to make ahead of Tuesday's semifinal showdown with Argentina. And after the coach makes those tough choices, the players have to start strong and be brave.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 20, 2016
6:50 PM

ON TUESDAY NIGHT in Houston, the United States men's national team will play its most high-profile game on home soil since July 4, 1994, when it hosted Brazil in the Round of 16 at the World Cup. While the team’s biggest home games since then have all involved Mexico as opponent, this time it will face off against Argentina—currently the No. 1-ranked team in the world featuring Lionel Messi, the best player in the world.

Stopping the Argentines—undefeated so far in Copa America Centenario—will be a huge challenge for the U.S. as the South Americans boast unparalleled skill and talent. For the Yanks to have any chance they will have to play cohesively, make few mistakes, and take advantage of any and all offensive opportunities.

Here are my thoughts on the game. 

How will the U.S. Start Things Off?

The opening minutes of Copa America Centenario games have been enormously important for the Americans. Against Colombia, the U.S. conceded an early set piece goal and from that point on was unable to muster any kind of attack. In the second game, the Yanks scored on an early penalty that stopped Costa Rica’s momentum and swung it in favor of the U.S. Even against Ecuador, the U.S. had the better of chances early before Clint Dempsey sealed the deal in the 27th minute.

Argentina is on a completely different level from what the U.S. has faced so far in this tournament. In fact, this will be the most challenging opponent since the U.S. played Germany in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup.

Ahead of Tuesday night’s game, the United States players are saying all the right things. They are saying they have the utmost respect for Argentina but also state they are confident in their own abilities. That’s all well and good but what is the reality? Is the U.S. intimidated or does it believe it can really win?

The answer won’t be revealed in any press conference or in any mixed zone. The first 20 minutes will tell the story as to whether or not the U.S. is ready to play. If the home team can muster some opportunities while being compact enough to keep Argentina off the scoreboard, it’ll be in good shape.

If the game, however, resembles the last few minutes of the Ecuador game—during which Ecuador outhustled and out-chaced the Yanks—it will be a long night.

In praise of Cameron and Brooks 

If the United States needs a dose of optimism before the contest, it can contemplate the central defense pairing of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Brooks, 23, is thus far a Best XI of Copa America and might in fact be the best defender of the tournament. Aside from a poor moment on Colombia’s openin set-piece goal, Cameron has been very good.

After the win over Paraguay, Jurgen Klinsmann said that once Dempsey scored he felt pretty good because with the way his defense has been playing, it’s going to be very, very hard for opponents to score two goals.

If Klinsmann has learned one thing from this tournament, it is that he has a reliable central defense tandem that should take him to Russia. He can now focus his attention on other areas.

On Monday, a rumor surfaced that Manchester City could be interested in Brooks' services. Before the tournament, Hertha Berlin Sporting Director Michael Preetz said he was disappointed that Brooks was going to spend his off-season playing in Copa America Centenario, adding that he risked his spot on the team in doing so.

The tune is far different now—almost comically so. In a BZ report out of Germany, there is now speculation that Brooks could command a transfer of €20 million after his performance this summer. All of a sudden, Preetz isn’t objecting to Brooks playing for the U.S. national team anymore.

"He has long-term contract here, and we are delighted if he continues to play such a good tournament," Preetz said. 

Replacing Jermaine Jones' physicality

Jermaine Jones received a red card against Ecuador and will not play Tuesday night. Klinsmann has always valued Jones' contributions, and even at age 34 signs point to the Colorado Rapids midfielder remaining an integral part of the national side.

When Jones is on his game he covers a ton of ground and brings a big physical presence. Offensively, he comes up big in important games: at the 2014 World Cup he registered an assist against Ghana and scored against Portugal while; in this tournament he scored against Costa Rica and assisted against Ecuador. He is a rare American player who opponents have to be mindful of at all times.

Building a midfield without Jones is going to be tricky. The big question will be who comes in for Jones. Kyle Beckerman or Darlington Nagbe? Those are two very different players. Beckerman is older, more experienced, and more of a straight-up defensive midfielder. Nagbe is new to the team but has shown promise in his passing and strong possession game. The big question is whether or not Nagbe has the defensive strength in a game like this.

The other question with the absence of Jones is what it does to Michael Bradley? Bradley has played better when Jones has been out of the picture but in this tournament Jones and Bradley have clicked. Without Jones will there be too much on Bradley’s shoulders or will Bradley have to play a different role with a new midfield partner?

With all due respect to Perry Kitchen, the two most likely candidates to play in central midfield with Bradley are Nagbe and Beckerman and it will be interested to see what Klinsmann does in a pressure situation. Does the coach look to the future with Nagbe or cling to the past with Beckerman?

Fullback questions and Fabian Johnson

In the beginning of the tournament, DeAndre Yedlin was the starting right back and Fabian Johnson was the starting left back. Due to the suspension of Yedlin for the quarterfinal against Ecuador, Matt Besler filled in admirably at left back while Johnson switched to the right side.

Now what happens with Yedlin coming back? There are three likely options at the fullback positions.

  • Yedlin on the right, Johnson at the left back, Besler returns to the bench. This would maintain continuity with the original backline that started the tournament.

  • Besler on the left, Johnson at the right, Yedlin on the bench (with the unlikely possibility of Yedlin on the wing). This would maintain a steady backline that showed well against Ecuador.

  • Besler on the left, Yedlin on the right, Johnson into the midfield. This would move Johnson into his preferred position as a more attack-minded player. The problem is that Besler is so new to the left back position and Yedlin is coming off rough showing against Paraguay and is still getting settled into the right back position for the U.S. 

None of these options is ideal bit the strongest defensive option is probably the best choice when dealing with Messi and Co. That would be Besler on the left and Johnson on the right.

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