Juergen Klinsmann has long talked of the Copa America Centenario as a measuring stick for his national team, a way to see how the U.S. stacks up against some of the world’s top soccer nations.
Based on its performance Friday the U.S. still has some growing to do, with first-half goals by Cristian Zapata and James Rodriguez lifting Colombia to a 2-0 victory before an announced crowd of 67,439 at Levi’s Stadium. And that leaves the U.S. with its back against the wall only 90 minutes into the 23-day tournament, needing at least a win and a draw next week against Costa Rica and Paraguay to have any chance of advancing out of group play.
Colombia can virtually assure itself a berth in the quarterfinals with a victory Tuesday against Paraguay at the Rose Bowl.
“We have to … win,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “But before this game even started we always knew that the second game of the tournament was going to be just as big as the first. In that sense, nothing changes.
“We’re still confident. We created chances. We just didn’t put them in the back of the net.”
That confidence, Klinsmann said, comes more from the quality of the opponent than the quality of his team’s performance, because the U.S. was outplayed all night, chasing the skilled and cohesive Colombians while the U.S. midfield of Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones played as if they had never been introduced.
“We always were maybe a step too late,” Jones said. “Colombia is not an easy team to play. But it’s not the game that we wanted.”
Klinsmann, meanwhile, found fault with the score but not the game, repeatedly mentioning that Colombia is ranked third in the world by FIFA. The U.S. is 31st.
“We were absolutely OK with the team’s performance,” Klinsmann said. “We didn’t give them anything.
“You put the benchmark on the result. But playing these guys and who they are and the quality they have, we were absolutely even. We had a totally even game here.”
Well, for seven minutes anyway. Because in the eighth minute Zapata put Colombia in front to stay, finding the back of the net on a right-footed volley off a corner kick.
The score was the quickest in a Copa America opener in 17 years, and it was the first international goal of Zapata’s career. For the Americans, meanwhile, it was the worst possible start.
Then it got worse, with Rodriguez firing a penalty kick into the right corner to double the lead just before halftime. Mexican referee Roberto Garcia awarded the penalty after defender DeAndre Yedlin turned his back on a cross and extended his arm, with the ball striking him just above the wrist.
“Obviously the penalty decision was a major point in this game,” Klinsmann said. “But it is what it is.”
The U.S., meanwhile, didn’t have a shot on goal in the first half. Things got a little better in the second one with Clint Dempsey putting a driving header on goal in the 60th minute, then spinning a free kick toward the post three minutes later. But Colombian keeper David Ospina laid out to block the first one, then leaped to get a hand on the second, deflecting it wide.
And that leaves the U.S. with no margin for error going forward.
Still Klinsmann continued to see positives where others found pause for concern.
“But there’s a lot of positives coming out of this game,” he insisted. “The players, they see that No. 3 in the world, we can play with them. We can damage them.”
They just couldn’t beat them.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter: @kbaxter11