U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann declared before the tournament that his team is built to focus on the present and to compete for the crown at the Copa America Centenario. That mission doesn't necessarily restrict the roster to a pool of old-guard veterans.
Alongside World Cup veterans like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Ale Bedoya and a host of others, a group of young players have earned a shot to demonstrate their talents and fight for opportunities during this summer’s big tournament.
“This is a process, and the process is never ending,” Klinsmann said following the MNT’s 4-0 win against Bolivia. “But in the first couple of years when you're a pro, it's a big learning curve. We'll take it one step at a time. We put the pieces together for this tournament the best way that we get the right results.”
If the USA’s three warm-up matches are any indication, the learning curve may be further ahead than usual. Case in point - the average age for scorers of the last eight goals this past week is a ripe 23-years-old. Remove Tim Ream’s opening goal in Puerto Rico from the equation, and the figure drops even closer to the legal drinking age.
“What is wonderful to see is just the growth of these players over the last one or two years, how they really improved their game, how they're becoming more adult, obviously stronger physically but also becoming more confident.” Klinsmann said.
Leading the charge of the youth movement are speedy attackers Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes, ages 23 and 24, respectively.
Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood celebrate Zardes' second goal, which Wood assisted, in the USA's Copa America warm-up match vs. Bolivia.
Wood scored 17 goals in Germany last season for 2. Bundesliga side Union Berlin, a record by an American-born player. As a result, he was offered and signed a four-year contract with top flight club Hamburg earlier this month.
The Irvine, Calif., native has navigated his way onto the scoresheet in all three of the MNT’s warm-up games, with a smooth goal against Puerto Rico and quality assists in the wins against Ecuador and Bolivia.
“If you just see the learning curve of Bobby, I think it's very impressive,” Klinsmann stated. “I remember a couple of comments from the media side two years ago when I brought him in for the first game in Czech Republic, and people were wondering why because he was sitting on the bench at 1860 Munich, fighting against relegation in the second Bundesliga. With a young player, they can only grow if they play. You've got to give young players the chance, the minutes, and also give them the OK that they can make mistakes. They learn out of the mistakes very quickly, and this is what Bobby did.”
In 2015, Zardes tied Claudio Reyna for the most caps in a debut year for the U.S. with 19 total. Exactly 16 months after debuting for the MNT, Zardes tallied his fourth and fifth U.S. goals last night against Bolivia, marking his first international brace.
“Gyasi is an amazing character,” Klinsmann said. “He's very, very hungry to learn. He's a great listener and he knows that if certain things are not perfect yet, he’s going to work on it every day and want to improve it.”
Thanks in part to his first international multi-goal performance, Zardes is full of pride and confidence heading into the Copa America Centenario.
“I feel ready for this tournament, and this week I have before we step on the field against Colombia, I’m going to use it to the best of my ability,” said Zardes. “I’m trying to grow in confidence. Tonight helps a ton, but at the same time you can never be satisfied, you always have to keep working.”
And keep working he must. The U.S. roster features 12 midfielders/forwards for Copa America Centenario, including additional up-and-comers in 25-year-old Darlington Nagbe and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, who scored their first international goals in the last two games, respectively.
Christian Pulisic (center) celebrates his first international goal with Darlington Nagbe (right), who assisted the strike, and DeAndre Yedlin.
Youth isn't limited to one end other park. The roster contains three 24-and-under defenders in DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Steve Birnbaum.
“I think over the next couple weeks they will definitely get their opportunities to play minutes and to leave an impression and to push more and more the established players towards the edge, which is their job,” Klinsmann said.