SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Jurgen Klinsmann deemed it a "benchmark." Michael Bradley called it a "big opportunity."
That's how the United States men's national team approached Friday's opening match of the Copa America Centenario, a special edition of the South American championship to celebrate its 100th anniversary with neighbors from North and Central America and the Caribbean. The Americans fully embraced being tested by the third-best team in the world, according to the latest FIFA rankings.
Certainly, the final grade has yet to be determined. But even the positives, as remote as they were, weren't enough to influence a favorable pass/fail assessment in the U.S.'s 2-0 defeat to Colombia before a sellout crowd of 67,439 at sweltering Levi's Stadium.
Cristian Zapata's eighth-minute volley and James Rodriguez's 42nd-minute penalty secured all three points for the Colombians.
Klinsmann talked on Thursday about how the Americans respected Colombia's wealth of attacking talent – namely James Rodriguez, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado – and were capable of taking advantage of the weaknesses of Jose Pekermann's side. But an old bugaboo – conceding early – came back to haunt the U.S.
Zapata easily got away from defender Geoff Cameron to get on the end of a corner kick, sending a cracking volley past goalkeeper Brad Guzan for a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute.
"I got picked on the inside," Cameron explained. "There were a bunch of guys in the middle and they tired to play me and [John Brooks] in the middle. I just missed it on the inside."
The U.S. enjoyed stretches of possession from that point on and even won free kicks close to goal, but failed to really test goalkeeper David Ospina as Colombia happily sat back and soaked up pressure. The Americans finally registered its first meaningful shot in the 36th minute on Clint Dempsey's left-footed laser that sailed just wide of the left post.
But then disaster hit the U.S. just before the break. DeAndre Yedlin, who made great strides as a right back for Sunderland in the Premier League, was called for a handball in the box. James easily converted the penalty to make it 2-0 Colombia in the 42nd minute.
"In the first half, there were some good moments," Bradley said "We weren't quite sharp enough or quite good enough to be able to take some little advantages, or some half chances, and really punish them. Obviously, on the night, they were really ruthless."
The U.S. showed signs of life with a half hour left. Dempsey's header off a Bradley corner was kept off the line in the 60th minute. Four minutes later, Dempsey won a free kick just outside the area and fired a rocket to the top corner that was punched away by Ospina.
The moment USMNT fans were waiting for came in the 66th minute when both Darlington Nagbe and teen phenom Christian Pulisic came on as substitutes to replace Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood.
A U.S. giveaway at midfield in the 77th minute immediately turned into a breakaway for Colombia. Carlos Bacca only had Guzan to beat to make it 3-0, but his left-footed strike crashed off the cross bar.
Klinsmann has four days to make adjustments as the U.S. next plays Tuesday in Chicago against Costa Rica, a 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist like Colombia. It will be crucial for the Americans to come away with three points at Soldier Field if they are to put themselves in position to survive Group A.
"We're disappointed obviously, but I thought we were the better team," Cameron said.
"I think we can keep our heads held high," he added. "We have the capability to win the next two games."