By Staff Writer
SANTA MONICA, Calif. The Copa America Centenario gets underway this week as the United States prepares to host South American heavyweights like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia in a month-long tournament that will be played out in 10 different cities across the country.
With expectancy weighing heavily for the United States Men’s National Team to make a good showing on home-soil, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has put together an intriguing squad combining experienced veterans with a smattering of youth and promising newcomers. As the USMNT makes final preparations for its tournament opener against Colombia at Levi’s Stadium on Friday night, we take a look at five players who could make a difference for the U.S.
1. Bobby Wood
With 17 goals this season for Union Berlin in the 2. Bundesliga, striker Bobby Wood set a record for the highest scoring season by an American in either of Germany’s top divisions. The 23-year-old’s prowess in front of goal earned him a transfer to Bundesliga side Hamburger SV and a spot on Klinsmann’s final roster for the Copa.
Thus far, Wood has impressed in friendlies – scoring the second of the U.S.’s three goals against Puerto Rico, setting up Darlington Nagbe’s winner against Ecuador, and Zardes’ second goal against Bolivia. He’s also showed enough versatility and adaptability to play in his usual position as central striker and in a slightly less familiar position, out on the wing. If Wood can sustain his current level throughout the tournament, the loss of Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury could prove the USMNT’s gain.
2. Fabian Johnson
German-American Fabian Johnson heads into the Copa on the back of a career-best season in the Bundesliga, having scored eight goals and five assists in all competitions for Borussia Monchengladbach. While there has been some questioning of Klinsmann’s decision to deploy the 28-year-old at left back, instead of his usual position on the wing, Johnson excelled in the position two years ago at the World Cup, when he started all four matches for the Yanks.
While the U.S. has more depth in attacking mid then it once did, the relative dearth of quality defenders means it makes sense for Klinsmann to deploy a versatile player like Johnson where he is most needed. With his pace and ability to play in crosses, Johnson could provide added width and menace if he does find freedom to break away from his defensive duties and get forward.
3. Gyasi Zardes
Since his first USMNT call-up in January of 2015, Gyasi Zardes’ international career has progressed in fits and starts. The LA Galaxy attacker had an off night against Ecuador, making poor decisions, poor touches and squandering the U.S.’s best chance for a goal in the first half. He was more on-song against Bolivia, scoring twice in a 4-0 rout.
The contrasting performances are illustrative of the sort of player Zardes is for the U.S. at the moment. We don’t yet know which Gyasi Zardes will show up once the Copa gets underway, but with his blistering pace, ability to stretch defenses, and knack for one-touch finishing, Klinsmann will be hoping the 24-year-old can keep his heavy touches under control and get his decision-making right when it counts.
4. Darlington Nagbe
Having only earned his U.S. citizenship last September, there was an air of expectancy around Darlington Nagbe’s first call-up to the USMNT. The Portland Timbers midfielder made a somewhat inauspicious debut, coming on as a sub against Trinidad & Tobago in a World Cup qualifier.
However, since then he’s been grown into his role as a “super sub,” scoring the winner against South American hopefuls Ecuador, and setting up Christian Pulisic’s goal against Bolivia. Nagbe brings pace, creativity and positional awareness to the attacking end of the U.S. midfield and the Copa offers him the chance to potentially play his way from super sub to creator-in-chief in the U.S. midfield.
5. Christian Pulisic
After breaking into the first team at Borussia Dortmund in January, 17-year-old Christian Pulisic has risen rapidly to eclipse Jordan Morris as the USMNT’s most promising young prospect. The attacking midfielder scored twice for Dortmund this season and opened up his account for the U.S. on Saturday, coming on as a sub for Zardes and netting the fourth goal for the U.S. against Bolivia.
Having already broken the record as the youngest player to score two goals in the Bundesliga, Pennsylvania-born Pulisic is now the youngest player to have scored for the USMNT. His cool finish against Bolivia hinted at a level of technical sophistication sometimes lacking in MLS-based players. While it’s still early days for Pulisic, of all the current players in the U.S. pool, it’s the Dortmund academy product who could offer the most potential for the future.
Photos courtesy of ISI.