The U.S. finished the Copa America Centenario on Saturday the same way it started the tournament three weeks ago: by losing to Colombia.
But while the result didn’t change, just about everything else did. Where the U.S. appeared passive and overwhelmed in the opener, in Saturday’s third-place game it played aggressively and with passion. Where Colombia dominated for long periods of the first game, on Saturday it was the U.S. that controlled the tempo.
And for goalkeeper Tim Howard, that counts as progress for a team that nonetheless ended its tournament with consecutive losses in which it did not score a goal.
“The last four to five weeks have been a step in the right direction,” said Howard, who made three saves in his first appearance of the Centenario. “Colombia was a good measuring stick because we played them twice. In the first game we didn’t get up against them enough. Tonight we could have won the game.”
But they didn’t because it was Colombia’s Carlos Bacca who scored the only goal, getting just enough of his foot on a Santiago Arias pass to deflect it past Howard in the 31st minute. The sequence started with James Rodriguez’ chip from outside the penalty area that found Arias on the right edge of the six-yard box. Arias then outfought U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya to head the ball toward the far post, where Bacca found it and knocked it home.
The U.S., which outshot Colombia, had several chances to answer. But Bobby Wood bounced a left-footed shot off the goal post; Clint Dempsey bent a free kick toward the upper corner where Colombian keeper David Ospina made a leaping deflection; Gyasi Zardes lofted a free kick over everybody into Ospina’s open arm; and Zardes and Bedoya both drove open shots over the crossbar.
While Colombia got a classy setup from Rodriguez and a strong finish from Arias and Bacca to score, the U.S. was either passive in the attacking end, taking too many touches, or impatient, shooting too soon or whiffing on shots entirely.
“They were clinical with their one chance in the first half and we were not that clinical,” Klinsmann said. “There were enough chances there to put one in. And the players know that.”
But while Saturday’s result was disappointing, Klinsmann and many of his players believe the tournament marked a huge step forward for the U.S., which won three of its first four games, captured its group and upset 13th-ranked Ecuador to reach the semifinals of a major competition for the first time since 2009.
And though it was shut out in its last two games, even that counts as progress because the losses came against world powers Argentina and Colombia.
“We got to the semifinals, which is good,” said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “We didn’t lose to anyone who’s ranked outside the top five in the world. But we need to win some of those games.”
However the fact the U.S. didn’t win isn’t likely to affect the status of Klinsmann, who perpetually appears to be on the hot seat
“I never said he wasn’t on solid group or was on solid ground or anything else,” Gulati said. “As we do in every tournament, we’ll sit down, we’ll talk with Juergen and talk internally and assess everything.”
Klinsmann has already made his assessment. After Saturday’s game he said he congratulated his players for what he called “a wonderful performance” then turned his attention to World Cup qualifying, which resumes in September.
And that will be the true test of whether the U.S. truly marched forward in this tournament or simply marched in place.
“What they really take out of this game is that if they raise the level of commitment, aggressiveness and … all these topics that we’ve been talking for five years and try to improve, they know they can compete with these guys,” Klinsmann said. “This is huge.”