Can the USMNT prove they are among the world’s best at Copa América?

TThe theory was always that what the USMNT needed was for more of their players to play with Europe’s best. Good, tough, regular competition, good professional training, exposure to best practice at the highest level the game has ever known. That was what would transform the commodity that the US produces into a truly top company that could regularly compete with the world’s elite. The practice is never that simple.

The friendly against Colombia earlier this month was the first time the US was able to field a starting XI that all play in the top Big Five of European leagues (there is some quibble over whether France can actually be included in that group or whether Portugal or the Netherlands is worth more, but for now let’s use it as a useful abbreviation to indicate a high European level). Could this be the breakout, the moment when the US finally became a major world power in the men’s field?

They lost 5-1.

There is no sugar-coating that performance or result, much improved considering Colombia may well come from the side that failed to qualify for the last World Cup. It was a mesmerizingly bad performance; it’s been a long time since the best teams were dismantled by James Rodríguez or Juan Quintero, both of whom found a mind-boggling amount of space. But that doesn’t undermine the basic logic: the more players a country has operating at the highest level, the better it is likely to be. The problem – as countless South American and African sides have found over the years – is that players used to the best can look at a domestic coach with a certain disdain. Gregg Berhalter has been head coach of the USMNT for seven years, split between two terms. The US has never been able to field more talent, but under Berhalter they have failed to get a win over a top 25 side in the FIFA rankings outside of Concacaf.

Before the Colombia debacle, things were good for Berhalter. The feud with the Reyna family seems to be over, to the extent that Gio Reyna was named player of the tournament in the Concacaf Nations League, while the victory in that tournament to some extent compensated for the disappointment of the semi-final elimination during the Concacaf Gold Cup final softened. year. But the question now, with a home World Cup looming two years from now, six years after failing to qualify for a World Cup, is whether the US is better equipped to compete with the world’s best than it was last time the country hosted a 16th World Cup. team Copa America, in 2016.

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The format of this year’s Copa, which starts on Thursday, makes sense. If you were to start over, you almost certainly wouldn’t have two separate confederations covering the Americas. Conmebol has long struggled to find a viable structure for a ten-member tournament; Inviting six Concacaf sides to create a format with four groups of four is by far the most convenient way to do that. Formalizing that for a regular tournament in America, with proper qualification, seems unfortunately unlikely, but it has many advantages, not least for the TV markets of the US and Mexico.

The best Concacaf teams also benefit from it, exposing them to competition with a higher level of opposition than is possible in the Gold Cup. It’s one thing to have players spread across Europe – 15 of the 26 in Berhalter’s roster are in the top division of Europe’s Big Five leagues; the next stage is to have them play together against leading countries. The concern about a 16-team Copa América is that few countries can successfully organize it; the US may work financially, but it is not good for Conmebol if the tournament is regularly organized outside its borders.

In 2016, the US defeated Costa Rica and Paraguay to top their group despite losing to Colombia, and beat Ecuador in the last eight before losing 4-0 to Argentina in the semi-finals. This time the draw was relatively friendly. Panama are familiar opponents, while Bolivia have had a terrible start to World Cup qualifying, losing five of six, although their only win did come after a coaching change, with Antônio Carlos Zago coming on for Gustavo Costas.

Uruguay is a completely different story. Marcelo Bielsa has used his familiar magic and formed a new side around the backbone of Ronald Araújo, Federico Valverde and Darwin Núñez, whose energy and determination appear to outweigh his lack of precision in front of goal in the press. They have already defeated both Brazil and Argentina in their rise second in World Cup qualifying.

It is Argentina who top the table, still inspired by Lionel Messi, and they remain the most likely winners of this Copa América, with Brazil looking for direction after Dorival Júnior was belatedly appointed as coach. Colombia may have an outside chance of winning a second title. In terms of tournament progression, that’s not great news for the US, as Brazil or Colombia will likely make it to the quarterfinals. However, when it comes to measuring standards before the World Cup, this represents a serious test.

  • This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, the Guardian US’s weekly look at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email and he will provide the best answer in a future edition