Connect with us

Sports

U.S. men’s soccer will step up in competition ahead of Copa América

Published

on

Soccer friendlies are largely free of consequence, untethered from continental and global competitions that end up rendering clear — and often harsh — judgment on national teams.

But friendlies such as the U.S. men’s national team clash with Colombia on Saturday at Commanders Field in Landover are also bellwethers. With its Copa América opener about two weeks away, Gregg Berhalter’s bunch will seek to find focus and form against not just the highflying Colombians but five-time world champion Brazil on Wednesday in Orlando.

And as these friendlies might portend performance at Copa América, Copa América, in turn, promises to reveal early signs of what to expect from the U.S. team at the 2026 World Cup on home ground.

Between now and then, this unit will not face a challenge as tall as the fabled South American tournament, which, for the second time in eight years, will take place over three weeks across the United States.

“It’s important for us to grow some confidence going into this tournament,” forward Christian Pulisic said Friday. “It’s going to be a really good test for us [against] obviously some of the top teams in the world. So for us, it’s just about seeing how we can match up and gaining some momentum and rhythm and confidence.”

It’s a big five weeks for Berhalter, who will face his hardest test since he guided a young squad to the 2022 World Cup’s round of 16 in Qatar. Because his reappointment last year came with growing expectations, a poor performance at Copa América would undoubtedly raise questions about the program’s direction and his future.

“For us to reach our goals and to reach where we want to go to, we’re going to have to beat teams of this caliber,” Berhalter said. “Copa América is essential to the growth of this group. It is a building block in which to go into the World Cup confident.”

Since the 2022 World Cup, the United States has played one match against a global titan: a 3-1 loss to Germany in a friendly last fall in East Hartford, Conn. Mandatory regional competitions — Concacaf’s Nations League and Gold Cup — have occupied most of Berhalter’s time.

Colombia has won six straight and is riding a 21-game unbeaten streak (16-0-5), which includes victories over Brazil, Spain and Germany. Its last loss came at Argentina in a 2022 World Cup qualifier 10 months before the Argentines lifted the sport’s ultimate trophy.

With a large Colombian fan base on the East Coast, a sea of yellow is expected amid the 50,000-plus spectators in Landover.

“We love games like this,” Pulisic said. “We want the big games, the big stadiums, the big teams.”

Since a 1994 World Cup upset, the United States has posted a 1-8-3 record against Los Cafeteros (the Coffee Growers) and is winless in seven straight meetings.

It’s worse against Brazil: a 1-18-0 record and 11 consecutive defeats since a Gold Cup upset in 1998.

Should the Americans advance out of Copa’s group stage by finishing in the top two — Uruguay, Bolivia and Panama round out the quartet — they probably would meet Colombia or Brazil in the quarterfinals.

The ruts against Colombia and Brazil are the longest active against any country — but they also provide opportunity to learn and grow.

Left back Antonee Robinson said, “I want to see us go into both games fearless and confident in our ability to play and our ability to hold our own against some of the best countries that are going to be in this [Copa] tournament.”

Because personnel and ideas have remained steady, the U.S. team will not experiment a great deal, though Berhalter will have to address Sergiño Dest’s injury absence at right back.

Also, a foot ailment has ruled striker Josh Sargent out of the Colombia game and perhaps the Brazil match and Copa América, Berhalter said Friday.

“We don’t want to go crazy with different tactics or try too many new things,” captain Tyler Adams said. “We want to feel comfortable in what we’re in. The buildup since the World Cup has been about that: We’ve tried a lot of things over those games, and some of them have worked while some haven’t. And it’s about just building that momentum.”

Aside from Dest and Sargent, the U.S. squad is at full strength, led by Pulisic and midfielder Weston McKennie, who are coming off standout seasons in Italy with AC Milan and Juventus, respectively.

Midfielder Malik Tillman (PSV Eindhoven) and Haji Wright (Coventry City) also shined in Europe. Overall, 15 U.S. players in this camp competed this past season in one of Europe’s top-five first divisions (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).

One of the two youngest squads at the 2022 World Cup, the United States is aiming to parlay steady growth into better results against well-established programs. Its last victories against major European or South American foes were nine years ago in consecutive away friendlies against the Netherlands and Germany.

“It would be nice to beat some big teams,” McKennie said, “and be looked at as a big team as well for doing so.”

In the broader picture, the World Cup remains the goal.

“Whatever tournament, whatever game we’re playing, we want to win, but the ultimate thing is we’re playing for something bigger,” center back Chris Richards said. “We’re trying to get ready for the World Cup. So getting experiences like these friendlies, like this tournament are just going to make us more prepared.”

Continue Reading