When the majority of the U.S. national team's players walked out of NRG Stadium with their heads hung low after Tuesday's thoroughly lopsided 4-0 loss to Argentina, it was unclear just when the Americans would have a chance to save some face and remind us that this was actually a good Copa America for them before the No. 1 team in the world made them look like amateurs.
That chance, to some degree, will come on Saturday, when the U.S. faces Colombia in the Copa America third-place match. It is a rematch of the tournament-opening loss suffered by the Americans, and it is one more chance to produce evidence that the U.S. is making progress as a national team.
Third-place matches, by their nature, are far from ideal barometers of where teams stand. The teams that usually play in them generally fall into two categories: the title contender that has little motivation to give full effort in a consolation match being played shortly after a disappointing semifinal, and the overachieving team that can gain credibility with a win.
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A year ago it was the U.S. playing the role of defeated favorite in a third-place match, having fallen to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals before dragging its corpse through a forgettable match against Panama that eventually ended in a penalty shootout defeat. The victory meant quite a bit for Panama, which had lost to the U.S. in the group stage, and had been eliminated by the U.S. from the previous five Gold Cups.
The U.S. role is much different this time around. Now the Americans are the team seeking some group stage revenge, and eager to make a tournament-closing statement. Colombia just played a weather-delayed semifinal against Chile, and will head to Arizona with less time to rest than the Americans had, and less motivation to play in a game that doesn't mean all that much for the No. 3-ranked team in the world.
Even if, as expected, Jose Pekerman trots out a mostly-reserve Colombian side to face the Americans on Saturday, the third-place match will still have value for the U.S. It is an opportunity for Klinsmann to deploy a team that has an eye toward the future. A lineup that includes players like Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and even players such as Steve Birnbaum and Perry Kitchen.
Of course, Klinsmann may be desperate to trot out the very same lineup that started all three group stage matches for the U.S., the same lineup that lost to Colombia in a match Klinsmann and many of his players insisted was an evenly-played match. He could feel compelled to give that group one more crack at Colombia, even if the Cafeterros don't deploy a full-strength team. It will be a chance for that group to play another game together, which may not be a bad thing since there is a good chance Klinsmann will use the same group when World Cup qualifying resumes in September, and the Hexagonal Round of qualifying begins later this year.
That may come as a surprise notion given the long-held belief that this Copa America would signal a generational shift for the U.S., and the end of the line for some of the team's older players. That is definitely the case for players like Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman, but this Copa America also showed us that players like Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones are still the best the player pool has to offer, and won't be leaving the fold just yet.
Whether Klinsmann goes with his group stage lineup, or a team filled with younger options, Saturday's match still won't offer what Klinsmann wanted most from this tournament. It won't offer evidence that the U.S. has reached the game's elite level. This really shouldn't have been news to anyone given where the level of the current player pool is, but the losses to Colombia and Argentina in matches that matter delivered the harsh, bit inarguable evidence.
The U.S. has firm footing in the sport's second tier of national teams, which isn't nearly as shameful as some want to make it out to be. But while Saturday's consolation match doesn't offer a spot in the elite, what it does is offer this U.S. team a chance to end this Copa American on a positive note, and an opportunity to build some momentum heading toward what will be a very important year for the U.S. national team. That is something this U.S. team could desperately use after the harsh lesson provided by Argentina on Tuesday.