PASADENA, Calif. — There were the gasps and the reactionary tweets. As Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez left the field of his national team's 2-0 victory against the United States, the commentators analyzed how the team would do without the star forward for the rest of the tournament.
Instead, he started Tuesday, wore the captain's armband, assisted a goal and scored another in Colombia's 2-1 win over Paraguay. James Rodriguez is fine.
"With the national team, I'll play until I'm crippled," Rodriguez said after the match. "I always want to play here, and I'm happy because I want to help."
But even if he suddenly came down with an affliction, or was reinjured as manager Jose Pekerman reminded reporters after the match was more likely after his initial knock, Colombia would be all right without him. This is a side that has a number of attacking threats and has a system Pekerman has done well to instill in them. The 3-0 loss to Uruguay in Montevideo during World Cup qualification was an anomaly. This is one of the best teams in the Americas, and Colombia showed that again Tuesday night.
There were some moments when Colombian fans felt like their hearts were in their mouths, just like when Rodriguez left the field in the first match. But as with their star's fitness, it all ended up all right for Colombia.
Rodriguez was magnificent in the first half, roaming throughout the midfield and putting pressure on Paraguay's defenders - defenders who play for top clubs in Argentina and Mexico. He wasn't as strong in the second, though he nearly had an instant answer to Paraguay's first goal.
But to solely praise Rodriguez would be to miss much of Colombia's strength. Carlos Bacca did more than just score the first goal. He stretched the Paraguay defense with his runs and provided an outlet for the Colombians when they broke forward with speed. Edwin Cardona has clearly put the memories of losing the Liga MX final in part because of a penalty kick that he missed behind him. Cardona was unlucky not to end up on the scoresheet, hitting the post just after Paraguay went down to 10 men in the 81st minute.
That's not even getting into the options Pekerman has on the bench, including veteran Tijuana striker Dayro Moreno and breakout Atletico Nacional star Marlos Moreno.
"Right now we need the team to grow and have confidence," Pekerman said. "Repetitions help us get the understanding that we’re looking, but we’re not going to leave other players working to the side. They also can give a lot of options to the team."
The defense will be overlooked, and it's the weakest portion of this team. Still, Cristian Zapata helped snuff out a number of attacks with quick reading of the match, and Santiago Arias handled the left side of the Paraguay attack well.
And about those nervous moments? The set-piece defending was horrible, and David Ospina defied conventional wisdom of what gravity should be able to do to a human when he skied for a save in the 62nd minute.
But even the Arsenal shot-stopper couldn't get to the stunner scored by Victor Ayala, a goal that he blasted in from the run of play but one that came shortly after Colombia had conceded a free kick. More concentration is needed on free kicks, and Pekerman absolutely will have his squad working on the training ground. It all nearly unraveled in the 87th minute when Jeison Murillo had to make a strong tackle to keep his man from having a tap-in that would've brought things level.
"They’re players of great skill, so also you work to improve concentration, look to get better but sometimes against the great teams you can’t avoid that type of thing," Pekerman said of Paraguay's strong second-half push.
Colombia still looks like the favorite for Group A, and from there the path to the semifinals, and perhaps the final, is agreeable. There could be one big green-and-yellow roadblock in Los Cafeteros' path. Should Brazil slip to second in Group B, the Selecao could await the Group A winner. Especially after Ecuador held Brazil to a scoreless draw in the same Rose Bowl where Colombia took apart Paraguay, that would be a match Pekerman would feel confident entering.
The Argentine manager will see plenty of things to work on when he reviews the film of this Group A contest, but ultimately with the options he has, he's managing a team that could go all the way and lift the Copa America Centenario - with or without its best player.