There is something that feels a little desperate about looking for bright spots from a 4-2 loss, but when you’re talking about a young team being put through a gauntlet of difficult opponents, silver linings can become standard procedure.
Such is the case of the U.S. national team, which suffered a 4-2 loss to Colombia on Thursday in a match that was — save for one 10-minute stretch — thoroughly lopsided. Colombia showed its class and ruthlessness in identifying the fault lines in the U.S. defense and attacking them like a colony of fire ants.
The result was a one-sided loss that wasn’t all that surprising but was still painful to endure. Not just for the young Americans who were reminded once again how far they still have to go to reach the level of the world’s top teams, but also for U.S. fans, many of whom had to know deep down that a beatdown was more likely than an upset.
There were silver linings though, sprinkled among the charred remains of what passed for a U.S. defense. There was a goalkeeper who managed to impress even among the deluge of Colombian goals. There was the young winger who flashed the magic we are all waiting to see become a regular occurrence. There was also the inspired 10 minutes to start the second half that gave U.S. fans something to feel good about, even if it ended almost as quickly as it began.
There were those silver linings, but there were far more issues that went unresolved and uncomfortable realities exposed about the current USMNT.
Here is a closer look at five key takeaways from Thursday’s loss to Colombia:
Steffen solidifies starter status
When Miguel Borja’s bicycle kick skimmed off his fingertips and into the USA net for Colombia’s fourth goal, Zack Steffen couldn’t hide his disgust. He opened his mouth wide, stuck out his tongue and let out a desperate breath at a night that he would probably rather forget.
The reality is the match against Colombia was a good one for Steffen, who kept the starting role even with the arrival of veteran Brad Guzan in camp. Steffen has been the first-choice U.S. goalkeeper for most of the year and he only solidified his standing by making several top-quality saves to keep the match from becoming a blowout even earlier.
Does that mean he will start against Peru? Not necessarily. Sarachan could decide he wants to have a look at Guzan with what should be an even younger defense than the one that faced Colombia. But if Steffen keeps the starting job it will be well deserved and another sign that he has pulled away from the pack in the race to be the top U.S. goalkeeper in the next World Cup qualifying cycle.
Robinson was roasted, but is still a prospect to invest in
Antonee Robinson probably had nightmares last night of Santiago Arias racing past him and James Rodriguez invading his space on the field.
Who could blame him? Colombia went after Robinson’s side of the U.S. defense for much of the night and far too often Robinson was beaten badly. In the first half, we saw the U.S. defense struggle to provide Robinson with ample support to deal with the onslaught, but in the second half Robinson simply made mistake after mistake, overwhelmed by Arias.
The natural reaction to Robinson’s awful performance was to toss him onto the scrap heep of failed left back experiments, but to do so would ignore a few things. First, he was tortured by an attack led by Bayern Munich star Rodriguez and Arias, who plies his trade at Atletico Madrid. We’re talking two veterans of top leagues with World Cup experience taking turns abusing a 21-year-old fullback who is in just his second full season as a professional starter (and it should be noted that Arias also torched Ben Sweat, who replaced Robinson, on the sequence leading to Colombia’s fourth goal).
Unlike the Brazil friendly, where Robinson rebounded from a rough first half to play very well in the second half, the Wigan defender never did find his footing and wound up enduring a second half that was among the worst ever turned in by a U.S. defender.
The bright side? Robinson is only 21, with the tools to still develop into a very good defender. Let’s not forget that DeAndre Yedlin’s defensive instincts weren’t the best when he broke into the pro ranks, but now he is a regular starter in the English Premier League and Colombia didn’t seem to want to test his side of the field very often on Thursday. Robinson also helped set up the first U.S. goal with a good cross for Kelyn Acosta. It was the third match in which one of his crosses helped set up a U.S. goal, showing that he does bring good attacking qualities to the position.
Attacking midfielders still wanted
When Christian Pulisic was forced out of the October friendlies due to injury, there were immediate questions about who would pick up the attacking midfielder duties. The initial answer seemed to be Julian Green, who plays the role for his German second-division club and who showed some promise playing centrally in the second half against Mexico in September.
If Thursday’s match against Colombia did anything, it reminded us that Green is more of a second striker than attacking midfielder and the true options in the number 10 role continue to be extremely limited once you get past Pulisic.
Green is and always will be a striker at heart, be it as a second striker or even lead striker, where Carlo Ancelotti memorably tried him out with Bayern Munich. Green can work on the wings and, at a certain level, he can probably make do centrally, but he doesn’t have the key ingredients to be an effective number 10. He lacks the vision, passing touch and ability to keep the ball in tight space and make the quick decisions that unlock a defense.
It was telling that Sarachan called his setup a two-forward system on Thursday, designating Green as a forward even though he spent much of the night clearly set up in midfield spaces. Aside from one promising shot he took from distance in the first half and a crucial tackle on Rodriguez to start the build-up to Bobby Wood’s goal, Green had a pretty quiet night.
If Green isn’t the answer to the question of who can fill the void when Pulisic is out, then who is? Kenny Saief looked like a player who wanted to be in the number 10 role, but was instead deployed on the wing where he offered little defensive support after the first 15 minutes. Nothing we saw suggests he is the answer in that role either, which raises the question of whether we simply have to accept the reality that there isn’t another option besides Pulisic at the moment.
Building midfield groups that lean on the team’s depth on the wings and in defensive midfield will be necessary any time Pulisic isn’t available. It will be the case least until a few years from now, when prospects like Nick Taitague, Emerson Hyndman, Andrew Carleton and Giovanni Reyna might one day give the team some good additional options in the number 10 role.
Bradley has value, but also limitations
The contingent of U.S. fans who went into Thursday’s match unhappy that Michael Bradley was on the team, much less as a starter and captain, were waiting for the moment they could hang their disdain on to support the notion that he has no place on the team. That moment came, according to many of them, when Radamel Falcao raced past a jogging Bradley on the way to scoring Colombia’s third goal. It mattered little that four other players in the picture could have done better to help stop that Colombia goal from happening, to say nothing of the two U.S. central defenders who were caught napping upfield and out of position. The image of a slow-moving Bradley being dusted by Falcao was all the evidence the Bradley haters needed. Case closed.
Only not really. The blame on the Falcao goal was down to multiple players, including two who weren’t in the picture. Matt Miazga and John Brooks went upfield for a USA corner kick, but after Colombia cleared the initial corner, 20 seconds went by with the USMNT in possession before Rodriguez sparked Colombia’s counter with an intelligent and hopeful long ball upfield. Though 20 seconds had gone by, Miazga and Brooks had not managed to leave the attacking third of the field, leaving the U.S. to try and defend the Colombia counter with Robinson and Yedlin, with the U.S. midfield trio of Kellyn Acosta, Bradley and Marky Delgado too slow in their recovery to keep up with Falcao and Juan Quintero, who raced past the slow-reacting U.S. defense.
The Falcao goal wasn’t Bradley’s fault, but the sequence served as a reminder of the reality that Bradley doesn’t move like he used to. He was never known for having top speed, but it is clear he has slowed down from his best years. Falcao wouldn’t have been able to run away from Tyler Adams that way, or Weston McKennie, but those trying to pin that goal on Bradley while ignoring the clear reality that Robinson, Acosta, Delgado, Brooks and Miazga all needed to do better on the sequence were either not paying attention, or were simply trying to find something to roast Bradley over.
Perhaps Sarachan gave Bradley too much credit when he deployed a midfield that would see Acosta spending more time in attacking spaces, leaving the TFC man as the lone defensive midfielder to deal with Colombia’s multiple speedy threats, including Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Quintero. Bradley in his prime would have struggled to cope with that trio on his own. Bradley at 31, with serious mileage on his legs over a 15-year career of hard running and relentless midfield work, wasn’t going to be the one to shut Colombia down. And here’s a newsflash, even the tireless Adams and tenacious McKennie would have had trouble covering that much midfield ground against that many Colombian attackers in that U.S. midfield setup.
Bradley can still play a role in the USMNT lineup, but not as a solo defensive midfielder. He can still help bring some composure in possession, give the defense a consistent passing outlet and feed the ball to the playmakers, but at this point in his career he would be best served playing next to a player with the engine and speed to cover for his limitations, like an Adams or McKennie. Of course, the next U.S. coach could very well decide that his midfield going forward will be built around a base of Adams and McKennie, with Pulisic in front of them, which makes total sense, but as we have learned this month, injuries can sometimes require alternatives. As much as Bradley haters won’t want to admit it, Bradley could still be an effective option as part of a double-six tandem next to an Adams or McKennie.
Is Bradley still a starter when all options are available? That will be up to the new USMNT coach to decide, but with some real talents continuing to develop, and age creeping up on Bradley, his window to contribute is closing quickly.
Weah and Sargent should see bigger roles in rest of 2018
Weah’s assist on Wood’s goal was a thing of beauty, one of the best moments of the match for the United States and a shining example of why it’s worth investing minutes in the PSG youngster. Sargent didn’t have quite the same moment, but he did have a promising run at goal during his eight-minute cameo that showed a player who is physically capable of handling the international level. Now he just needs the experience, both for club and country.
Sarachan said after Thursday’s match that there will be several changes to the squad that faces Peru on Tuesday. As impressive as Wood’s latest goal was, the Peru friendly would be an excellent opportunity to give Sargent an extended look against a better class of competition than the Bolivia squad Sargent debuted — and scored — against in May. Sargent has matured a good amount, both physically and mentally, in the five months since that Bolivia match, as his goal-scoring exploits with the Werder Bremen U-23 team have showed. If he doesn’t play at least 45 minutes against Peru it will feel like a wasted opportunity, especially if it means starting Wood again.
We shouldn’t expect Sarachan to trot out as young a team as possible against Peru, but Weah, Sargent and Jonathan Amon are all teenagers with serious ability and potential, and the sooner they can earn some real national team minutes the better.