KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The U.S. national team’s last 135 minutes of game time — the final 45 minutes of a 1-0 victory over Ecuador, followed by Saturday’s 4-0 dismantling of Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park — have supporters across the country harboring unfamiliar feelings these days: cautious optimism ahead of this week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario.
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It’s the best three-half stretch Jurgen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed (against top-80 opposition, according FIFA world rankings) since … well, come to think of it, I’m not really sure when. In the last 24 months, the Yanks have lost away to Guatemala, drawn away to Trinidad & Tobago, lost the CONCACAF Cup to Mexico on home soil, finished fourth at the Gold Cup on home soil, and wrapped up 2014 with just one win in their last eight games of the calendar year, including three of four World Cup fixtures.
(When you write it all out like that, it sounds really bad. It’s been really bad.)
Yet, here stands the USMNT, five days from kicking off the centennial edition of Copa America, and a few pieces are beginning to fall into place for Klinsmann and Co. I waxed poetically about Saturday’s victory and all the positives it highlighted.
Listening to Klinsmann and a handful of players speak after the game, there was a similar sense of confidence among the men on the field that a workable, sustainable formula had indeed been realized.
“The atmosphere is really good,” the 1990 World Cup-winning German said. “Fine-tuning elements, every training session helps you. I think no team will come into Copa America 100 percent or perfectly prepared. … It’s a bit tricky.”
Perhaps no player on the USMNT’s Copa America roster has come further under Klinsmann’s tutelage, and in such a short period of time, than striker Bobby Wood, who has scored all five of his international goals inside the last five months and on Saturday assisted on Gyasi Zardes’s strike for a 3-0 lead with a quality cut-back cross from the end line — Wood, speaking after the game:
“I think as a team, we’re pretty confident,” Wood said. “We wanted to continue growing as a team with each game before the tournament. With these results, I think we did a good job to be confident going into the Colombia game. … I actually think two games ago, we were still pretty confident. Maybe the outside is putting pressure on us, but as a team inside the locker room, we’re pretty confident to do well. I think everyone is pretty hungry for Copa to start.”
It’s the USMNT’s current crop of youngsters like Wood, the 23-year-old now-Hamburg man, that gives American fans hope beyond Copa America with an eye toward the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The average age of the scorers of the USMNT’s last eight goals: 23 years old. No one is more excited by that progression than Klinsmann, who raved about Christian Pulisic after the 17-year-old became the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history on Saturday.
“What is wonderful to see is the growth of [the young] players over these last one or two years — how they improved their game, how they’re becoming more adult[-like], obviously stronger physically, but also becoming more confident,” he said of players like Wood, Zardes, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, among others. “This is a process. The process is never-ending, but the first couple of years when you grow, it’s a big learning curve. How far this process takes us into Copa America, we’ll take it one step at a time. We put the pieces together the best way that we get the right results.
“I think over the next couple of weeks, they will definitely get their opportunities to play minutes, leave an impression, and to push more and more the established players toward the edge, which is their job. It will be a very intense and interesting next couple of weeks.”