Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes and Christian Pulisic aren’t exactly household names in the United States, but one or all could be if they live up to their potential the next few weeks.
A new generation of American players is ready to leave its mark on the soccer world in Copa America Centenario, the South American championship that is celebrating its 100th anniversary in a special edition in the U.S.
The biggest soccer tournament on U.S. soil in a generation — since the 1994 World Cup — kicks off Friday when the USA faces Colombia in Santa Clara, California.
The Americans aren’t favorites in the 16-team competition but want to make waves.
“We want to get to the Final Four,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Captain and standout midfielder Michael Bradley is hopeful.
“It’s a good blend of youth, of experience,” he said. “There’s good balance in the team. There’s big determination within the team to make this a special few weeks.”
With Jozy Altidore (hamstring) injured and Clint Dempsey (33) not getting any younger, those newcomers are ready to strike. They already have professionally.
Wood, 23, scored 17 goals for Union Berlin (2. Bundesliga) this season, a record by an American-born player. Zardes, 24, who has done his damage as a midfielder-forward for the L.A. Galaxy (MLS), tallied twice in last week’s 4-0 warmup win over Bolivia.
The most intriguing prospect is the 17-year-old Pulisic, the son of former Long Islander Mark Pulisic who has been turning heads at Borussia Dortmund (Germany). Against Bolivia he became the youngest U.S. men’s international player to score.
“He is a wonderful kid,” Klinsmann said. “He’s grounded. He knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear, and this is very important.”
Klinsmann was just as excited about the other youngsters.
“Over the next couple weeks they will definitely get their opportunities to play and to leave an impression and to push the established players towards the edge, which is their job,” he said. “It will be a very intense and interesting next couple of weeks.”
Anything less than a second-place finish in Group B will be considered a failure for the U.S. It won’t be easy navigating a group that includes two 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists. Colombia boasts James Rodriguez, who scored a tournament-high six goals in Brazil. Costa Rica, led by Bryan Ruiz, will meet the U.S. in Chicago Tuesday. Whether the U.S. advances could come down to Paraguay in Philadelphia on June 11.
The top two teams in each group reach the quarterfinals. Finishing as runner-up probably means a matchup vs. tournament favorite Brazil at MetLife Stadium on June 17.
The U.S. has several concerns, starting with its goalkeepers, a traditionally strong position, a shaky defense and an unsettled midfield.
If Wood, Zardes and Pulisic can fill the net, those potential headaches could become history while they make some history of their own.