By Sean Hartnett
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The United States will compete in highly competitive Group A at Copa America Centenario. With matches against Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay, and only two tickets available to the knockout stage, many are calling it the “Group of Death.”

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For the Americans, this tournament will be a true litmus test of progress under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The 51-year-old German is under pressure to demonstrate growth and make a strong run stylistically at a prestigious tournament. Aside from lifting the Gold Cup in 2013, the United States has struggled to make headway in pursuit of the ultimate goal of becoming a recognized soccer powerhouse.

In his five years as U.S. National Team manager, Klinsmann has largely made a series of sideways steps. Proof of a legitimate forward step has long been overdue.

Michael Bradley

United States midfielder Michael Bradley, left, works for the ball against Guatemala midfielder Rodrigo Saravia during the first half of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Columbus, Ohio on March 29, 2016. (Photo: Paul Vernon/AFP/Getty Images)

Fans of the red, white and blue are clamoring for Klinsmann to adopt a creative, possession-based style. Klinsmann was labeled as a tactically unimpressive coach long before he took the helm as U.S. coach in 2011. Former German captain Philipp Lahm famously criticized Klinsmann in his 2011 autobiography “The Subtle Difference.”

“The experiment with Klinsmann (at Bayern Munich) was a failure,” Lahm wrote. “We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn’t care much for tactical stuff. It was up to the players to come together before a match and discuss how we were going to play. All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage.”

Despite such criticisms, Klinsmann is credited alongside current Germany National Team manager Joachim Low with getting rid of the static, defensive style that had long plagued Die Mannschaft. With Klinsmann presiding as German manager at the 2006 World Cup, his assistant Low was the tactical mastermind who transformed Germany into a team that plays attractive, attacking, world class soccer.

Unlike Low, Klinsmann is not regarded as a tactical genius. His strengths are his motivational approach, focus on youth and handling of the media. As United States manager, Klinsmann has received constant criticism for his roster selections, tactics and his odd tendency of deploying his players in unfamiliar positions.

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Hindering USA’s Copa America hopes is a squad made up mostly of aging veterans and promising-yet-inexperienced youngsters. A hamstring strain has ruled out key striker Jozy Altidore. How much more can be squeezed out of 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, 34-year-old Kyle Beckerman and 34-year-old Jermaine Jones? Christian Pulisic, 17, Bobby Wood, 23, and 25-year-old Darlington Nagbe are knocking on the door, but it remains to be seen whether Klinsmann will offer the trio impact minutes at Copa America.

Led by Real Madrid ace James Rodriguez and in-demand A.C. Milan striker Carlos Bacca, Colombia is the clear favorite to win Group A. So rich is Colombia’s crop of talent that big names Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez did not make their 23-man squad.

Costa Rica has proven its mettle at major tournaments by reaching the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Gold Cup. However, the United States and the rest of the sides in the group received a boost recently when it was announced that star goalkeeper Keylor Navas will miss the tournament due to an Achilles’ injury.

Paraguay is a defensively stout team and striker Dario Lezcano enters Copa America in rich form, co-leading South American World Cup qualifying with four goals.

USA’s Group A schedule (all times Eastern): June 3 vs. Columbia, 9:30 p.m., June 7 vs. Costa Rica, 8 p.m., June 11 vs. Paraguay, 9 p.m.

Prediction: The tinkering and tactical shortcomings of Klinsmann will cost the United States a place in the knockout stage. There’s no real identity or clear plan. Even if USA reaches the next stage as Group A runner-up, it will likely face Brazil, which is expected to cruise through as Group B winner.

Colombia will win Group A, Costa Rica will advance to the knockout stage as runner-up, and USA will finish a disappointing third.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey