Well, we're here. We've gone from existential dread to the utmost heights of optimism in about 180 minutes of soccer. I'm actually not sure if American Soccer Twitter has been watching the USMNT or if they all streamed Up at the same time, but the mood swings are real right now.
But those were friendlies. We've moved on to games that actually count right now. Jurgen is on record as saying "We start the tournament with a final," and by all accounts it looks that way from the American side. Colombia has stars. Like, real stars. Even if James Rodríguez or Juan Cuadrado may have seen their fair share of ups and downs over the last 12 months, the fact remains that they play for Real Madrid and Juventus, respectively. The only player the United States has with club experience at nearly the same level as those two is 17 and won't be starting in this tournament (and no, Tottenham just isn't on the same level as the three afore-referenced clubs. Sorry, Clint Dempsey). This is a tournament in the United States, at a point where the USMNT feel like they've hit a turning point from an absolutely abysmal year and a half or so of play. And if there's one thing the U.S. has been good at over the past several years, it's playing with a chip on its shoulder in tournaments it has no business doing well in.
For Colombia's part, this tournament will be an interesting one. Many of their star players that broke out at the World Cup in 2014 saw big-money transfers fizzled and playing time falter at the club level, and the team was very disappointing in Chile last summer, barely squeaking out of the group stage with the last qualification spot after losing to Venezuela and drawing Peru and bowing out in the quarterfinal round, losing in penalties to Argentina. Will Los Cafeteros see this tournament as a chance at redemption? Or just an opportunity to pick up an easy paycheck? The attitude of the team will go a long way towards determining how this game will play out.
W (4-0) - Bolivia - Friendly
W (1-0) - Ecuador - Friendly
W (3-1) - Puerto Rico - Friendly
W (4-0) - Guatemala - WCQ
L (0-2) - Guatemala - WCQ
W (3-1) - Haiti - Friendly
W (3-1) - Ecuador - WCQ
W (3-2) - Bolivia - WCQ
L (0-1) - Argentina - WCQ
D (1-1) - Chile - WCQ
What to Watch For:
The XI - Who is the best first XI for the USMNT? Who is Jurgen Klinsmann's first XI? And are those two lineups the same thing? It could be possible, but probably not. Jurgen Klinsmann will most likely be fairly pragmatic from the start and introduce a lineup heavy with defensive cover, and then introduce some greater attacking flair the longer the game goes on. Long story short: neutralize James, Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca and any other threat Colombia sets forward for as long as possible, and then try to hit them for a goal or two in the last twenty minutes, hoping the Colombian defense will get lazy after dominating possession for the majority of the game and take a smash-and-grab result. At least, that seems to be the most likely thing to happen. Jurgen always finds a way to surprise us, though, doesn't he?
Is This Defense Good Enough? - For a long, long time, the answer to that question for the U.S. has been "no." The outside back positions have been especially in flux over the last couple of years, and the lack of reliability in the back has directly contributed to the United States' continued inability to consistently control games. More and more defensive players have seen the field, and the U.S. has failed to break out of the "Last-Ditch Defense and Pray for Counter-Attacks" tactics that Klinsmann promised he would do away with. But there's reason to be cautiously optimistic about the defense and it's ability to take care of itself while more offensive players leave their stamp on the game. DeAndre Yedlin seems to finally have locked down the right back spot. Fabian Johnson's best position is in the midfield, but he's also probably the most reliable left back on this team, and one of the few U.S. players truly comfortable in possession. Brooks and Cameron seem to be the likely starting pair in the center, and if the two can get their communication ticks sorted out, that line seems reasonably strong enough to allow the U.S. to assert itself more than usual.
Litmus Test - Look, as much as I hate to say it, Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic aren't going to start this match. But they almost certainly will see some significant minutes, and that is cause for excitement, because we might actually get to see just how good these two really are. Are they good? Yes. Are they good against top international talent? We don't really know yet. If they put their stamp on Friday's game (along with Bobby Wood, who hasn't cut his teeth in real international competition as of yet), the hype train might just jump off the tracks.
Like so many others have said already, it stands to reason that the team that started the second half against Bolivia will start against Colombia as well.
The main attacking feature of this lineup is Dempsey's tendency to drop back into midfield, combine with Jones and Bedoya, and have one of them release Zardes and Wood in on goal. Both Wood and Zardes are naturally strikers, so their first inclination already takes them diagonally in towards goal. Letting Dempsey pull Colombia's centerbacks out of position by dropping deeper to receive passes and lay them off quickly gives Wood and Zardes the space to use their speed cutting inside from the wing. Michael Bradley is a 6 (praise Him, praise Him, thank you Lord). Look for the Nagbe for Bedoya or Zardes and Pulisic for Dempsey subs to come around the 70th minute, with Wood moving to the top of the triangle and Pulisic moving out to the wing.