SPORTS

Stakes are high as Team USA opens Copa América against Colombia

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States looks on as Michael Bradley works out during a training session. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States looks on as Michael Bradley works out during a training session. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

There are so many questions about the U.S. men’s national team with so few answers available as the Americans prepare to open Copa América Centenario Friday night in Santa Clara, California, against Colombia.

Here are the major issues that face the Red, White and Blue in the most important stateside soccer tournament since the 1994 World Cup:

1. Can Team USA survive the opening round with its two top goalkeepers, Brad Guzan and Tim Howard, having endured difficult seasons in the English Premier League?

2. Is the back line stable enough to absorb the attacking prowess of Colombia (with Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez) and Costa Rica (Sporting CP’s Bryan Ruiz) in its first two group matches?

3. Can the U.S.’s sturdy veterans – midfielder Michael Bradley and forward Clint Dempsey – find some magic when push comes to shove at crunch time?

4. Can the younger and less experienced players, such as Gyasi Zardes, 24, and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, who starred in the team’s 4-0 warm-up win over Bolivia – keep up that form in games that really count?

5. And if Team USA fails to get out of Group A, will Jürgen Klinsmann survive as national team coach?

If he is feeling the pressure, Klinsmann hasn't showed it. In fact, the former German superstar has been as optimistic as ever, claiming lofty expectations for his team.

"We want to get to the final four," he told reporters.

Of course, before the Americans can concern themselves with that, there is the challenge of getting out of the group stage in one piece – especially with two quarterfinalists from the 2014 World Cup, Colombia and Costa Rica, in their opening matches.

“And Paraguay,” as retired U.S. men’s team standout Landon Donovan told Fox News Latino recently about the fourth team in Group A, “is no slouch either.”

After Colombia on Friday, the Americans head to Chicago to face Costa Rica on June 7. They complete group play against Paraguay in Philadelphia on June 11. The final of the tournament – a special edition marking the 100th anniversary of the South American championship held every four years – takes place on June 26 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Donovan told Fox News Latino recently that the U.S. goal should be just to get out of the group stage. "After that, your expectations are based on who you draw."

The top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals. The Group A runner-up is likely to face Brazil, the tournament co-favorite along with Argentina.

At the 1994 World Cup, there were concerns whether the USA could qualify for the second round. The Americans stunned Colombia and earned a point against Switzerland to avoid becoming the first host to fail to survive the opening round.

Bradley, who was 6 at the time and has fond memories of being taken to a Cup game by his dad, has some good vibes that this team will be able to repeat that achievement.

"It's a good blend of youth, of experience," he told reporters. "I think there's good balance in the team, and I think there's big determination within the team to make this a special few weeks."

Klinsmann tabbed Guzan as the No. 1 goalkeeper over Howard, even though he backstopped an awful Aston Villa side that was relegated. Guzan won only once in 28 appearances (1-22-5).

As for Howard, he hardly played down the stretch for Everton before being transferred to the Colorado Rapids. He also took a year's sabbatical from the national team, which figured in Klinsmann's decision.

"We believe that Brad deserves it," Klinsmann said. "Brad, throughout the last two years, played very consistently and very solidly with us. He had a very tough year with Aston Villa, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s also a different environment."

How much danger Guzan is likely to face will be determined by the team’s defense and a back line that must be considered shaky at best.

In friendlies leading up to the Copa, Klinsmann kept trying out new configurations on defense. Michael Orozco, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and Matt Besler lined up as the back four against a Bolivia side that played far below its potential, so it is difficult to determine if that quartet or some other grouping will be starting against Colombia.

It certainly did not hurt that Bradley was moved back into his more natural role as a holding midfielder, with Jermaine Jones assuming the attacking spot. It remains to be seen if Klinsmann will continue to use that set-up, because he likes Bradley's passing ability up front.

Just who deserves to be the top striker is up for contention. With Jozy Altidore sidelined with yet another hamstring injury, the forward spots are up for grabs.

Dempsey always has been a reliable option, but he is getting older (33), which means he will be 35 when the 2018 World Cup in Russia rolls around –ancient for strikers by Cup standards.

So, which of the wunderkids will blossom? Bobby Wood, who started out as a super-sub for the national team before earning starting time, scored 17 goals for Union Berlin in the Bundesliga’s second division, a record by an American-born player. He since has signed with Hamburg in the first division.

Gyasi, who plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy, scored twice against Bolivia and just might be coming into his own internationally.

The much-heralded Pulisic became the youngest player in U.S. men's history to score an international goal against Bolivia (17 years, 253 days), and it would be unfair to expect miracles out of someone so young. In fact, the national team landscape has been littered with promising players who have not lived up to expectations.

Klinsmann has earned a reputation as the Teflon coach. U.S. Soccer’s president, Sunil Gulati, has given the German his unconditional support through little thick and a lot of thin, which includes an embarrassing fourth-place finish at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and failing to qualifying for the 2017 Confederations Cup.

But most national team coaches are assessed on one factor – whether they reach the World Cup and how the team performs there.

So, barring an all-out embarrassment at the Copa, Klinsmann seems safe for now.

The USA recorded three consecutive warm-up wins, but those results have been thrown out the window.

"We're happy with the way things went in these last two games," Bradley said. "In terms of the spirit and the mentality of the group, it always helps. But we all understood that the second that whistle blew in Kansas City to finish the [Bolivia] game, those results meant nothing.”

He added, "Now it's about understanding that the real thing is starting, and we've got to have the right mentality and the right focus and know the difference between these types of games."

"I wish I was playing," Donovan admitted to FNL. "This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Many critics fear the worst, but the Copa could very well turn into a blessing for the USA if the team plays well and its younger players blossom. A good performance could boost the Americans when World Cup qualifying resumes in September, when the stakes will be that much higher.

For now, though, the Copa América Centenario stakes are high enough.