Turn the clock back two years and the future of Colombian football looked decidedly bright. Jose Pekerman's team celebrated a return to the World Cup finals after 16 years by making history in Brazil with a quarterfinal finish. Their vibrant football turned heads and won admirers across the globe while back home, up to 150,000 people choked capital city Bogota's main park as a nation welcomed their heroes home.
A month later, the ex-Argentina coach put pen to paper on a new four-year contract, prompting chatter and excitement to quickly focus on the 2015 Copa America in Chile. "We're candidates to win it," Pekerman boasted. "A majority of these World Cup players will be in my squad; we want to ratify our progress." But those plans quickly fizzled out and Los Cafeteros slumped out in the group stage, scoring just one goal. They looked worn, uninspired and a shadow of the exciting side that grabbed headlines at the World Cup.
Pekerman had indeed kept faith with the old guard that had delivered success in Brazil but injuries and dips in player form had stymied the fluidity and peppiness of Colombia's play. It was proof that a new process had to begin and not for the first time, the three-time world U-20 champion coach turned to youth to find answers.
After a sluggish start to the World Cup qualifiers, in which Colombia picked up just one win in their opening four games, Pekerman held a four-day micro training camp in February 2016 involving domestic players. From this group, a new youthful generation was integrated into the squad for the March qualifiers.
A 3-2 victory against Bolivia in the rarefied air of La Paz was followed by a sublime 3-1 performance at home to then-group leaders, Ecuador. With six points in the bag and a World Cup campaign back on track, the press box in Barranquilla purred with satisfaction: from the shadows of the World Cup, a new-look Colombia had finally emerged.
Pekerman was also clearly convinced. In his 23-man Copa America Centenario squad, almost a third have been plucked from the U-23s. "The door remains open for everybody else, but I want to try to consolidate this new project," the coach claimed last week. "I now have a team that is fresh, renovated and optimistic."
Several of these new faces are expected to be involved when Colombia take on hosts the United States for the tournament curtain raiser this week.
In keeping faith with the "March project," Pekerman will employ a 4-2-3-1 that uses lone striker Carlos Bacca as the focal point for Colombia attacks. With three goals in his last two competitive starts, this summer could be the Milan forward's big moment.
Behind him will be captain and key man, James Rodriguez. The Golden Boot winner may have struggled for minutes and form at Real Madrid this season but for Colombia, his place is unquestioned. With freedom to float across midfield as the team's main creative force, the 24-year-old captain resurrected his World Cup form in the March qualifiers with two sublime performances. Zidane may have no room for him at Madrid he's still a perfect fit here.
Juan Cuadrado and Edwin Cardona are the other prongs to Colombia's midfield triumvirate. Unlike at Juventus, Cuadrado is relieved of defensive duties under Pekerman, free to dart down the right flank and pull defenders out of place. He's occasionally guilty of charging down a blind alley but his pace and trickery is a constant threat. He's also sure to win Colombia a lot of free kicks, which is where Cardona comes in.
Operating on the left of midfield, the pudgy playmaker isn't the quickest and is also prone to picking up a card, but Cardona's ability to strike the ball from distance is up there with the world's best. In 35 starts for Mexican club side Monterrey this season, the midfielder scored 18 times. Many were top-corner screamers from outside the box.
Holding play in midfield will be Sebastian Perez, a classy passer whose form for Colombian side Atletico Nacional over the past few months has even led to rumours that Barcelona are interested. Perez's sharpness in releasing the ball and abundant technical ability once convinced Arsene Wenger to send an invite for a trial in north London. It didn't work out but after just three Colombia caps, he's already cemented his place in the first team.
In Pekerman's favoured style, his midfield is completed with Daniel Torres, another Colombia-based player who is tasked with shielding the defence and breaking up play.
If Colombia have a flaw it's in central defence, where the U.S. will surely seek to put pressure on Jeison Murillo. At last year's Copa America the Inter Milan defender was one of the star performers but an alarming crisis of form over the past few months has Pekerman worried.
"I'm not happy with the goal we conceded," Pekerman moaned after a 3-1 friendly win last weekend against Haiti. "We need to do better."
The Caribbean minnows offered Colombia a weak warm-up test, particularly after being reduced to 10 men just before half-time. But Colombia still struggled to cope with crosses and set pieces throughout; it's thought that against the U.S., stuttering Murillo may be on his last chance.
Also concerning Pekerman is the hosts' threat from the wings. During the 2014 World Cup, full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zuniga offered rampant support from deep. Colombia's current wide defenders, Santiago Arias and Farid Diaz, are much more conservative options. Neutralising U.S. attacks from the flanks will be a priority.
If the wobbly rearguard offers the hosts a ray of hope, there follows a drawback. On Colombia's bench, Pekerman has a secret weapon who has dazzled South America in recent months. His name is Marlos Moreno, he's just 19 years old and he's perhaps the most precocious talent on the continent.
Pekerman turned to Moreno in March after a scintillating league and Copa Libertadores campaign with club side Atletico Nacional. With six minutes left against Bolivia, Marlos came off the bench and made an immediate impact, executing a deft turn before racing clear and slipping in Edwin Cardona for an injury-time winner.
Many observers in Colombia have compared him to Faustino Asprilla (Moreno claims he's even better) for his unpredictability, dribbling and innate knack of making the right decisions at crucial moments. Disciplinary issues and a ballooning ego threaten to stunt his development but against Haiti, he was back to his blistering best.
Alongside gifted Racing striker Roger Martinez, Pekerman's bench could contain two of the most enviable young talents in the competition. However, with a lack of squad depth and a team brimming with inexperience, Colombia may struggle to mount a serious Copa challenge.
World Cup qualification unsurprisingly remains the team's priority but Pekerman's youthful revolution has ushered new energy into the side and in Santa Clara on Friday, the U.S. should not expect an easy ride.