USA-Colombia: Can hosts expose Cafeteros' weaknesses?

Many teams, including the USA have made last-minute adjustments to their rosters because of injuries.

Timmy Chandler’s spot on the final 23-man squad was taken by Edgar Castillo due to a strained quadriceps. Castillo joined the team earlier this week after playing for Monterrey in the Mexican League playoff finals, which were won by Pachuca and USA teammate Omar Gonzalez, who didn’t make the Centenario squad.

Defender Yerry Nina replaced Oscar Murillo on the Colombian roster. Coached by the vastly experienced Argentine Jose Pekerman, once a candidate to coach the U.S. national team, Colombia is one of several Centenario teams difficult to assess.

Here are three storylines to follow for the opening match of an historic tournament:

1. IS THE USA SQUARED AWAY AT THE CORNERS? Until Chandler was forced to pull out, speculation persisted that Klinsmann might use him at left back and deploy Fabian Johnson in midfield, where Johnson normally plays for club team Borussia Moenchengladbach.

Klinsmann has auditioned quite a few players at left back and Chandler’s inclusion would also have provided an option at right back, but Johnson is clearly one of the squad’s most accomplished players: more than 200 league games in Germany, and his 44 caps includes starts in all four 2014 World Cup games.

An injury in the round of 16 game against Belgium brought in DeAndre Yedlin, who during the last six months has parlayed steady playing time for Sunderland into a U.S. starting spot. Yedlin’s blazing speed is always a great asset yet at Sunderland he’s learned the essentials of patience and decision-making that have been part of Johnson’s game for several years.

No doubt the Americans need their outside backs to get into the attack at opportune times, but the Colombians are renowned for pushing and chipping balls into spaces behind over-eager defenders. The support for Colombia could be considerable -- national icons such as Carlos Valderrama and former head coach Francisco Maturana will be in the house -- and its players are very adept at the cat-and-mouse counterattacking game often featured in competitions such as this.

2. WILL COLOMBIA PAY FOR WEAKNESSES ON SET PIECES. Colombia is one of several Centenario entrants that seems to be equally capable of doing very well or crashing out of the first round.

A year ago, Colombia started off the Copa America by losing to Venezuela, then bounced back to beat Brazil, and reached the knockout round by tying Peru, 0-0, in its final group game. Colombia lost its quarterfinal to Argentina on penalty kicks after another 0-0 tie.

It also reached the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals by rolling through its group with three straight victories and beating continental rival Uruguay, 2-0, in the round of 16 before losing to Brazil, 2-1.

In the Conmebol World Cup qualifiers, it is fifth with a 3-2-1 (W-L-T) record, has scored nine goals, and conceded eight. Considering that Brazil is tied with Paraguay sixth, just four points behind co-leaders Uruguay and Ecuador, none of the Conmebol nations are assured of a smooth path to Russia even though five of them are in the FIFA rankings top 10. (Argentina is No. 1, Colombia is third.)

A pair of victories over Bolivia and Ecuador in March helped Pekerman justify his exclusion of striker Radamel Falcao, whose loan to Chelsea from Manchester United has been dotted by injuries that ruled him out of those qualifiers. When the Centenario squad was cut down to 23 among those left out were Adrian Ramos, Teofilo Gutierrez and Abel Aguilar. But big names such as James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Sanchez are present.

Colombia has been plagued by set-play goals during the qualifiers. It has conceded several on headers from corner kicks, which is a weakness that plays into one of the U.S. strong points.

3. WHAT WILL BE THE MIDFIELD MIX? The U.S. played a 4-3-3 formation in its three Centenario tune-up games yet Klinsmann can tweak and tilt the front six into another alignment without much difficulty.

Does he opt for a more conservative approach by using Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, and Kyle Beckerman against the potent Colombians, or is there a more adventurous option in play? The omission of Danny Williams from the 23-man roster and inclusion of Darlington Nagbe would seem to indicate a belief the defensive duties in midfield are well in hand and perhaps someone off the bench can supplement the attack.

The formation is especially relevant to players like Alejandro Bedoya, who is perhaps not as well suited to the right wing as Graham Zusi but a much better midfield option. His Colombian heritage -- his father Adriano and grandfather Fabio were professional players -- has drawn a lot of attention from the Colombian press gathered to cover the game, and when he’s on the field he’ll draw attention from defenders. His influence will be a key factor at how much Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood can threaten the opposing goal.

At some point -- perhaps as soon as Friday -- Klinsmann will give teenager Christian Pulisic his first run in a competitive international. Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s shown enough for Dortmund and the U.S. to earn further looks either as a wing or wide midfielder.

Colombia’s attacking slots are well-stocked with quick, tricky players capable of changing tempo and point of attack almost instantly. The Americans must be able to press the attack while maintaining defensive stability regardless of which players are delegated to which positions.

1 comment about "USA-Colombia: Can hosts expose Cafeteros' weaknesses?".
  1. Jim Ngo, June 2, 2016 at 10:38 p.m.

    It's gonna be a super crowded midfield but that may give the advantage to USA if it can limit space and touches for James and Cuadrado.

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