The United States' Copa America Centenario was a mixed bag. They made the semifinals (good!), but struggled mightily against quality teams (not so good). However, there is one thing that they are feeling great about after the tournament -- they have a trio of budding young stars.
John Brooks, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin were among the Americans' best players throughout the tournament, and that's by any measure. It's not on a sliding scale for youngsters, or even in the sense that all three can improve going forward. They were just straight-up good.
While fans gnashed their teeth over Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic's long spells on the bench, wondering when the new players were going to get their chances and why Jurgen Klinsmann wouldn't use them more, a trio of kids were on the pitch. Klinsmann did more than give them chances -- he leaned on them. And they delivered.
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Brooks was the United States' best player all tournament long. Whether it was winning every ball in the air, cutting out plays before they could get dangerous, distributing from deep, covering for his left back or single-handedly stopping a three-man attack, Brooks put on a masterclass. He did it all and, through the first four matches, had a claim to the best major tournament performance by a U.S. player in more than a decade.
His physical attributes were never in doubt, as a big, strong player to go along with great mobility, but coming off the best club season of his career with Hertha Berlin, he now looks capable of reading the game and maintaining the consistency necessary to be the man the U.S. need. The Americans have been searching for a dominant, reliable central defender ever since Oguchi Onyewu suffered a debilitating knee injury in 2009, and the 23-year-old Brooks looks like he is ready to be that man.
Yedlin also did his part to make the U.S. believe they had the makings of a stable back line. While his speed never has been in question, it has been overlooked. Dismissing him as nothing but a speed demon is easy, and he did need more than pace to succeed, but it's also worth noting that Yedlin's speed is the only world class trait that any U.S. player has. And, thanks to a season playing for Sam Allardyce at Sunderland, Yedlin now knows how to play defense and use that speed.
Teams struggled to attack the right side of the U.S. defense and often shifted their attacks to the opposite flank or pushed through the middle. That's in part because of Yedlin, who used his speed to take away opponents' space and often pressed wingers so quickly that they didn't have the chance to turn with the ball. Steve Cherundolo is still the gold standard of American right backs, but Yedlin is already better than pretty much any other U.S. right back of the past 20 years, and he's only 22 years old.
While Brooks and Yedlin took care of the back line, Wood led the front line. It was the final sign of incredible growth from a 23-year-old striker, who often looked out of place at the international level just 18 months ago. But he scored 17 goals for Union Berlin in the 2.Bundesliga, showing better finishing ability in a season that saw him transform as a player. It earned him a move to Hamburg for the upcoming campaign and had Americans thinking maybe they had found a goal scorer. The reality is they had found so much more.
Wood proved to be a brilliant hold-up striker, winning balls in the air, keeping it with his back to goal and holding off defenders before feeding teammates. Clint Dempsey was the main beneficiary, but the entire team was better off because of Wood's work up top. And he still added a goal with a terrific shot against Costa Rica, then flashed his ability to get good shots away in the third-place match, rattling the bar on a good effort.
Wood was better at Copa America than any American striker has been in a major tournament since Brian McBride. And seeing as the U.S. have been struggling to replace McBride for 10 years with a productive but incosnsistent, limited and now injury-prone Jozy Altidore, the emergence of Wood is almost as important as the emergence of Brooks.
Whether you're happy or disappointed in the Americans' results and play, and whether you think Nagbe and Pulisic were given a fair shake or not, there's no doubting that the U.S. feel better about their team now than they did before Copa America. That's entirely because of Brooks, Wood and Yedlin, three youngsters who were nothing short of spectacular, and who now give the Americans some certainty -- maybe for the next decade -- at a time when the team is in desperate need of it.
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