It's almost here. With the ending of leagues across Europe, summer has officially arrived and with it, the highly anticipated Copa America Centenario. With the U.S. hosting the tournament, expectations for the United States are high and getting out of the group is a must.
The road has gotten a bit tougher with another hamstring injury to front man Jozy Altidore, sidelining him for the tournament, but Jurgen Klinsmann and company will still be expected to perform. Here are my predictions of how the U.S. will fare in the group stage.
USA vs. Colombia
This will be the toughest test of the group stage for the Americans. The Colombians bring the threat of pace from all over the field which the U.S. has had struggles with in the past. The biggest key for the U.S. will be keeping Real Madrid's James Rodriguez from making an impact on the game. Whether it's scoring or setting up his teammates, Rodriguez can turn the game on its head in a second and the Yanks will be wise to pressure him whenever he has the ball at his feet.
Should the Yanks be able to keep Los Cafeteros at bay in the early stages of the game, Michael Bradley and co. may be able to get their foot on the ball and create chances of their own. The last time the two teams met in late 2014, the U.S. got off to a tremendous start before succumbing to the Colombian pressure late. But, without top strikers Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson available due to injury, will the Yanks have the offensive firepower to hang with Colombia? The U.S. has only been shut out in three of the 30 matches since the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, so expect the U.S. to get on the board, but too much talent on the Colombian side does the hosts in.
Prediction: USA 1, Colombia 2
USA vs. Costa Rica
Play this game four years ago and U.S. fans might have said this is an easy three points. But after watching Costa Rica reach the last eight at the 2014 World Cup -- and follow that with a defeat of the U.S. last October on American soil -- this game is no gimme. With the U.S. dropping the first game in this scenario, it's three points or bust for the Yanks.
This may actually prove to work to the team's advantage, as the U.S. always seems to play a bit better with its back against the wall. Should the U.S. find a way to stifle Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, the team will get enough chances to bag some goals. This one has a Clint Dempsey brace written all over it as the former captain will once again dig the U.S. out of trouble.
Prediction: USA 2, Costa Rica 0
USA vs. Paraguay
In this scenario, the U.S. heads into its final group match needing a point to advance (Colombia has won all three games and Costa Rica finishes with three points). This could be an extremely dangerous scenario for the U.S. Should a draw be enough to see them through, Klinsmann could opt for a more defensive shape, a decision that would surely see the Americans come under great pressure from the Paraguayans.
Paraguay is no slouch, this is a team which has only lost once so far in this cycle of World Cup qualifying and has fashioned draws against Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador during that time as well. The Paraguayans will come out knowing they can beat the Yanks and possibly get themselves into the knockout rounds. Whether it's Howard or Guzan in goal for the U.S. -- in this writer's opinion, Howard is still the number one -- the man between the sticks will have to make some big saves in order for the U.S. to stay in this game.
There's a lot of talk about who are the next generation of strikers in the U.S. pool that are ready to step up. Bobby Wood has been tremendous this season in Germany and seems poised to get starts up front. Expect Wood to start all three games for the U.S. in the group stage and when the defensive strategy backfires for the U.S. and they need a goal, Wood will be the one to get it as he's done in the past. A raucous and nervous crowd at Lincoln Financial field will watch Wood equalize before Captain Marvel himself, Dempsey, assures the U.S. of a place in the knockout rounds will a late game-winning strike.
Prediction: USA 2, Paraguay 1
* * *
Those are my predictions for the USMNT in group play. Who do you see advancing and how do you see the group matches playing out?