The 2016 Copa America will long be remembered for Lionel Messi's surprising international swan song and Chile's successful defense of its title, but when the dust eventually settled from Sunday's final, it was time to reflect on just what the tournament meant for the U.S. national team.
A fourth-place finish certainly sounds like an accomplishment in a tournament with so many quality participants, but there was still a sense of a missed opportunity by the Americans. A chance to show it had really made progress under Jurgen Klinsmann came and went, and while there were victories to hang Klinsmann's hat on, none were of the type that could really suggest the U.S. has made a jump into a new class under Klinsmann.
How you evaluate the U.S. team's Copa America depends very much much what you were hoping to see from this team. If you were a realist and were simply looking for the team to show some stability after two largely forgettable post-World Cup years, then this tournament provided that. A first-place finish in the tournament's toughest group — and a resounding 4-0 victory against a tough CONCACAF rival — were enough to call this Copa America a success, even with the multiple losses to Colombia and beatdown by Argentina.
Now, if you went into this Copa America wanting to see a team that was clearly stronger than the one Klinsmann inherited five years ago, there was much less supporting evidence. The Americans beat the teams they were supposed to beat, particularly at home, and they lost all three matches against highly-ranked competition. Even though 4-0 rout of Costa Rica was a bit flattering because Costa Rica dominated possession and created more chances, but the Americans enjoyed their only day of clinical finishing in the match you could argue was the most important of the tournament for them.
Make no mistake, beating a creditable opponent in Ecuador in a knockout round game was a admirable feat, but not one that really confirms true growth as a national team. Not in the way beating Mexico in the 2002 World Cup signaled a new level, and the 2009 Confederations Cup win against eventual World Cup winner Spain injected belief into the U.S. program (before tragedy and injury to took away two key pieces of that promising team: Charlie Davies and Oguchi Onyewu).
Beating Argentina absolutely would have been that kind of victory, but Argentina is at a different level and the U.S. wasn't nearly as equipped to pull off the upset as the 2009 U.S. team was equipped to beat Spain. The third-place loss to Colombia was an improved effort on the tournament-opening loss, but even though they were better, the Americans still didn't do what it took to win.
Klinsmann will understandably try to paint this Copa America as evidence of a team that is growing, but we aren't going to really find that out for another two years. The Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying should be as tough as it as ever been, but there will be no Confederations Cup for the U.S. before the 2018 World Cup for the U.S. to test itself against the world's best.
Klinsmann did enough to buy himself the remaining two years before the World Cup. As for his players, some enjoyed outstanding tournaments, while others probably played their final matches for the U.S. There will be a changing of the guard once World Cup qualifying resumes in September, only it probably won't be nearly as dramatic a changing as some would have hoped for.
Here is a closer look at how the U.S. players fared at the 2016 Copa America Centenario:
BRAD GUZAN (B)
This was Guzan's tournament to put a hammerlock on the starting goalkeeper spot for the U.S. and he did just that right up until the semifinal loss to Argentina, when he had some shaky moments that left an unfortunately negative tinge on an otherwise strong tournament. He did enough to justify Klinsmann's trust and should remain the number one heading into World Cup qualifying.
TIM HOWARD (B-)
Only played in the third-place match, but Howard made the most of it, turning in a strong outing in what might be his final start for the U.S. Commanded the penalty area and read threats well, serving as a calming influence. He showed enough to suggest he should remain Guzan's backup until one of the younger options is truly ready to replace him, which still may be some time from now.
DEANDRE YEDLIN (D)
This Copa America set up to be a big one for Yedlin, what with his successful stint at Sunderland and a summer of potential transfer opportunities looming. Unfortunately, he showed his youth and naivete far too often, and his Copa America had the kind of mixed bag no defender wants. A handball for a penalty, a red card early in the second half of a tight game, and a blown assignment on the lone goal in the third-place match.
Despite all that, Yedlin is still the future of the position, but he will need to tighten up his defending if right back is going to return to being a strength for the U.S. like it was when Steve Cherundolo patrolled the position.
GEOFF CAMERON (A-)
Cameron went into Copa America considered the team's best defender, and while John Brooks may have outplayed him, Cameron put together the type of tournament that should keep him in the heart of the U.S. defense for a good while. Overcame his blown assignment on the opening goal of the tournament, and was a rock for much of the rest of the competition.
What may have been most impressive about Cameron's Copa America was his confidence on the ball. He completed the second-most passes of any U.S. player in the tournament, and also had the second-most successful dribbles.
JOHN BROOKS (A)
No American player saw their stock rise further during Copa America than Brooks, who was an absolute wall in the back for most of the tournament. He dominated in the air, and also picked out threats on the ground as well. He showed real confidence in possession, completing a gaudy 87 percent of his passes (the best rate of any U.S. starter) and his ability to clean up all aerial threats led him to 34 clearances, the best total in the entire tournament.
And the negatives? It's tough to point to any, though you would have liked to have seen him be involved more offensively on set pieces, but that's nitpicking a tournament that was one of the best ever played by an American defender.
FABIAN JOHNSON (B+)
Johnson is a tough one to grade because you have to take into account he wound up having to play a position that is probably the one he is least comfortable playing among the many he can play, and because of the extremely tough assignments he wound up drawing, starting with Colombia's Juan Cuadrado and ending with Lionel Messi.
Johnson held his own as best he could against those sharks, but his grade gets a major boost for his excellent job shutting down Jefferson Montero in the big quarterfinal win against Ecuador. That game, which saw him switch to right back, and the Costa Rica game, which required him to handle Joel Campbell, were some of the best of the tournament for the U.S.
MATT BESLER (B-)
Called on to play left back in the quarterfinal clash against Ecuador, Besler stepped in and didn't miss a beat, helping shut down Antonio Valencia on the way to helping the U.S. squeeze out a 2-1 victory. Didn't fair quite as well in the third-place match when slotted into his natural center back role, but didn't exactly look bad there either. Should remain a fixture on the squad when qualifying resumes.
MICHAEL OROZCO (C)
Orozco deserves credit for stepping into a crazy quarterfinal against Ecuador with his team being down a man. He did his job to help the Americans hold on for the win. His showing in his lone start — in the third place match against Colombia — was thoroughly forgettable. He looked about as shaky as you would have expected, and earned two yellow cards along the way for his trouble.
STEVE BIRNBAUM (INC)
Played just 31 total minutes in the tournament, which was as much more about how well Brooks and Cameron played than it was about Klinsmann not trusting Birnbaum. The D.C. United defender will have stiff competition for his place on the team when World Cup qualifying resumes, but Klinsmann definitely rates him highly.
MICHAEL BRADLEY (C+)
Let's call Bradley a victim of his own high standard. If you listen to some accounts, Bradley just had a nightmare of a tournament. It can definitely be called one of his worst, but he still remained a very influential figure on the team. He was rightly roasted for being terrible against Argentina, and his showing in the opening loss to Colombia was forgettable as well. Along the way though, Bradley was a key force in the Costa Rica win, and turned in respectable efforts against Paraguay and Ecuador.
Where Bradley really struggled was in the turnover department. As the American player who spends the most time on the ball, he is always going to lose the ball at times, but the frequency with which he turned the ball over in bad spots was very alarming at times. What often gets overlooked is how hard he works to win the ball back, which he often does, but on too many occasions he tried forcing passes that wound up leading to dangerous counterattacks for the opposition. Suggestions that he should no longer start are pretty absurd, but he does need to clean up the passing, which could also be helped once some more technical midfield options emerge to play around him.
JERMAINE JONES (B-)
People will continue harping on about Jones' age, but in this Copa America the veteran midfielder showed that he can still make big plays when needed. His bite and fearlessness were sorely missed against Argentina, and his Man of the Match showing against Costa Rica should not be forgotten. One of the biggest benefactors of the switch to the 4-4-2, Jones helped set up goals in the attack while also doing a ton of defensive work.
After his efforts at the 2014 World Cup, and now his showing at Copa America, Jones has cemented himself as a player who shines on the big stage. While he may be 36 at the next World Cup, he is still playing like someone who could be a part of that team.
ALEJANDRO BEDOYA (B-)
Every team needs a player like Bedoya, who serves as the glue to the squad, both offensively and defensively. His tireless work off the ball often goes overlooked, but Bedoya was an indispensable part of the team's success at this Copa America. Could he have played better in the opening match against Colombia? Definitely, but the rest of the tournament he brought all the qualities Klinsmann wanted from him. His passing, his pressure, his movement, and his poise, all of which could have been used against Argentina, the match he missed because of yellow cards.
Bedoya's role going forward will be an interesting one. He remains one of the few Americans playing at high level in Europe, but younger options are looming, and he could be in for a real fight as the Hex comes around.
GYASI ZARDES (B)
While he can still frustrate you with his uncertain touches and inability to read the game at a high level, what we saw from Zardes at this tournament was a player who wasn't afraid of the big stage, and a player who is very much a useful contributor. Arguably the lone bright spot in the Argentina match, Zardes was one of the few to actually go at the Copa finalists, and while none of his forays resulted in a goal, he still made an impression.
Zardes had other strong outings as well, such as the Ecuador win and the Costa Rica win. Overall, Zardes boosted his stock at Copa America, and is in good position to remain a starter when qualifying resumes in September.
GRAHAM ZUSI (C+)
Used quite a bit as a sub through the tournament, Zusi had his bright moments, and his invisible ones. The most important moment was the goal he scored against Costa Rica, which seemed meaningless at the time, but which wound up helping securing first place in Group A for the Americans.
Did Zusi do enough to remain in the national team picture after Copa America? The jury is definitely out, and the more likely scenario will be seeing Zusi fade out of the picture once the Hex rolls around.
KYLE BECKERMAN (C)
Another veteran player who played sparingly, Beckerman had his chance to shine against Argentina, but was clearly in over his head. The same could be said for the rest of the U.S. team, so it's not like you can single him out, but it's tough to see Beckerman playing a part for the national team beyond Copa America. He's 34 now, and with Jones already serving as the team's elder statesman in midfield, it's time to give players like Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams a longer look in defensive midfield.
CHRISTIAN PULISIC (INC)
Played just 85 minutes at Copa America, a number sure to infuriate U.S. fans who thought he deserved more, and thought he looked very promising in those limited minutes. He showed flashes when given the chance, but with Klinsmann stating he didn't want to rush the Borussia Dortmund midfielder, perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising. He certainly showed enough to merit a longer look when qualifying resumes.
DARLINGTON NAGBE (INC)
Played just 47 minutes, not nearly enough time to really make an impact or an impression, which is disappointing because there were certainly games where he is poise in possession and ability to move the ball around could have been used. A larger role should come his way in the fall.
CLINT DEMPSEY (A)
Joins Brooks as one of the two best Americans at Copa America. The best attacking threat by a country mile, Dempsey reminded us all that he thrives in the big moments, and he can bring something special that there just isn't an abundance of in the U.S. player pool at the moment. Whether it was his nose for goal, dangerous free kicks or movement on the counterattack, Dempsey showed of plenty to lead us to believe he can still be a fixture on the team come 2018.
BOBBY WOOD (B+)
If Brooks was the defensive revelation of this Copa America, then Wood was the attacking revelation. He played with real confidence and looked every bit like the type of target striker the U.S. needs. He makes good runs, shows a tireless work rate to contribute defensively and he can finish chances. For the first time in recent memory, there is a clear option other than Jozy Altidore at striker for the U.S., which may have been the best news of the tournament for the Americans.
CHRIS WONDOLOWSKI (INC)
It may have been easy to give Wondolowski an F for his terrible half against Argentina, but the reality is he didn't play enough to merit a grade. He was bad in his one start, no doubt, but the blame for him being on the field belongs to someone else.
JURGEN KLINSMANN (C+)
Yes, he helped the U.S. reach the semifinals, and grab fourth place in the Copa America, but Klinsmann doesn't merit a higher grade. Many times it felt like he didn't get the most out of this team, and didn't make the right decisions with personnel. The Wondolowski move was a clear failure, which he seemed to acknowledge with the halftime hook, but he also probably cost the U.S. a chance of winning the opener by starting out in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-4-2. Beating Costa Rica bumps his grade up, but going much higher than a C+ is tough considering the Americans didn't beat any of the top teams they faced.