NEW YORK --
Visions of Brazil emerged as the Copa América Centenario draw unfolded. United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann knew this feeling all too well after the trials and tribulations two years ago. One by one, the complications emerged. The verdict at the end proved inescapable: the U.S. once again ended up in the most difficult group in the tournament.
There is no masking the perilous road ahead with Colombia (June 3 in Santa, Clara, Calif.), Costa Rica (June 7 in Chicago) and Paraguay (June 11 in Philadelphia) now placed on the Group A docket. This daunting group tracked closely to the worst-case scenario, particularly with Brazil looming as the likely opposition for the second-place finisher. The burden falls on the U.S. to overcome those twists and turns to emerge from group play once again.
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"Obviously, it's a difficult group, no doubt about it," Klinsmann said. "But it's doable. We had a similar scenario in Brazil and we went through. Now we start with Colombia right away instead of Ghana."
The experiences in Brazil provide a blueprint for the challenges ahead, but this particular situation carries its own pitfalls. There is considerable pressure on Klinsmann and his players to advance from group play in the most significant men's soccer tournament held on American soil since the 1994 World Cup. There are no excuses for an early exit at home, even with the difficult nature of the group. Failure simply is not an option.
Klinsmann reinforced the steadfast nature of those expectations even with this assignment and reiterated the need to focus at every turn. The path forged in the last World Cup included a victory over Ghana in the first game and a draw in the second match against Portugal points the way here. Those successes illustrated the utility of a positive start and underscored the need to attack the proceedings in piecemeal fashion.
"We take it one at a time," Klinsmann said. "We'll do everything we can to prepare very, very thoroughly for Colombia. Now it's good to have the teams. We can reach out, put the scouting plans together for all of their strengths, weaknesses and their individual players. We can get our homework done and prepare the guys 100 percent for the job."
Those exercises require caution and diligence given the fluid nature of the South American opposition. Klinsmann expects Colombia and Paraguay to bring their top players to the tournament this summer, but there are some difficult decisions ahead for both nations as they devise their plans.
Colombia must contemplate potential alterations if the under-23 side defeats the Americans in the two-legged Olympic playoff next month. Real Madrid midfielder James Rodriguez -- like several of his European-based compatriots -- isn't expected to play in both tournaments. Paraguay are more concerned with World Cup qualifying and manager Ramon Diaz is already laying the groundwork for a potentially weakened outfit.
Both countries plan to work through those permutations in the months ahead. Similar sentiments apply to Klinsmann and the Americans as they dispense with World Cup qualifying obligations against Guatemala next month and sort through selection issues ahead of the tournament.
There are several quandaries for Klinsmann to weigh over the next few months as the tournament comes into focus. The exploits of German-based trio John Brooks, Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood, the recent demotions of goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard and the role ahead for longtime fixture Clint Dempsey all warrant consideration. The balance of the side and the mixture between youth and experience also play a critical part in the calculus as the American squad takes shape.
Expect Klinsmann to use the pair of competitive matches against Guatemala and the expected pre-tournament buildup in May to sift through those finer points. Those decisions carry additional weight now given the magnitude of the task ahead as players jostle for places.
"It will help us also in terms of World Cup qualifying," Klinsmann said. "Both Guatemala games are big, big games competitively within the group to make your case, make your statement towards the Copa América. This helps us now."
Every little bit helps as the Americans set their sights on a place in the knockout stage. The difficulty of the road ahead is clear now. The tournament is laid out with all of the pitfalls in place and all of the potential rewards on display. The way forward now is familiar. It is now just a matter of conjuring up the application and the defiance of two years ago to guarantee safe passage later this year.