Under pressure to make a statement following a tough 2015, the U.S. and coach Jurgen Klinsmann find themselves in the Copa América’s most balanced quartet. It’s the closest thing to a “group of death” this competition has. It’s not hard to imagine any of the four teams finding its way through. But five years into Klinsmann’s tenure and with the comforts of home at their disposal, the Americans will be afforded no excuses. They must finish first or second, especially now that Klinsmann has publicly targeted the semifinals.
It’s an intriguing time for the U.S. Gifted newcomers like Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and Bobby Wood are changing the face of the team. While they may be fixtures at the World Cup in two years, their ability to impact the Copa is uncertain. Klinsmann will have to find the proper balance between veteran savvy and youthful enthusiasm.
Colombia is the favorite on paper even though it’s stumbled a bit since its run to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals. Los Cafeteros fell to Argentina on penalty kicks in last year’s Copa quarters, scoring only one goal in four games, and is a modest 3-2-1 in World Cup qualifying. Nevertheless, they have talent to spare—so much so that veterans like Radamel Falcao, Teófilo Gutiérrez and Jackson Martínez were left behind.
Costa Rica and Paraguay will be tough outs. Los Ticos proved their tournament mettle two years in Brazil, are comfortable playing in the U.S. and have several players shining in MLS, England and Spain. Traditionally a defensive juggernaut, Paraguay is anchored by Club América defender Miguel Samudio. Any team that can keep clean sheets is a threat.
ROSTERS: USA | Colombia | Costa Rica | Paraguay
Match schedule (all times Eastern)
June 3: USA-Colombia at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, 9:30 p.m.
June 4: Costa Rica-Paraguay at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, 5 p.m.
June 7: USA-Costa Rica at Soldier Field in Chicago, 8 p.m.
June 7: Colombia-Paraguay at Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, 10:30 p.m.
June 11: USA-Paraguay at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, 7 p.m.
June 11: Colombia-Costa Rica at NRG Stadium in Houston, 9 p.m.
Five players to watch
Carlos Bacca, Colombia: The AC Milan striker is a prolific tip to the spear wielded by midfielders James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado. He’s reached 20 goals in each of the past four seasons (including two with Sevilla and one with Club Brugge) and has scored three times in World Cup qualifying.
Jermaine Jones, USA: He’s a force of nature for good or ill. Jones can impose himself on both sides of the ball and lift the energy of an entire team, as he did during stretches of the World Cup. He also can run too hot, whether its through overly ambitious runs or passes or clashes with opponents and referees. Klinsmann’s trust in Jones is complete. The midfielder’s performance will have a massive impact on the U.S.’s fate.
Dario Lezcano, Paraguay: The 25-year-old FC Ingolstadt forward is the unexpected co-leader in scoring in South American World Cup qualifying with four goals. And Paraguay is in the hunt at 2-1-3. He doesn’t have the pedigree of the tournament’s other top forwards, but he’ll be key for La Albirroja in June.
Keylor Navas, Costa Rica: He was spectacular at the World Cup and has replaced a legend at Real Madrid. For years, American goalkeepers carried the CONCACAF flag in Europe. Now it’s Navas, who could win the Champions League on Saturday. Rumors that Madrid is courting the likes of David De Gea or Thibault Courtois persist, meaning Navas may enter the Copa inspired rather than fatigued.
James Rodríguez, Colombia: The breakout star of the 2014 World Cup has faded since his blockbuster move to Real Madrid, for which he started just 17 La Liga games this season. Still, he managed eight goals in all competitions and has netted twice for his country in World Cup qualifying. At his creative and audacious best, James can dominate. If he rediscovers that form at the Copa, Colombia will go far.
It’s strange to call a World Cup quarterfinalist a surprise, but another run from Costa Rica certainly would raise eyebrows in South America. Los Ticos won’t be intimidated by the U.S. and Paraguay, especially after beating Italy and Uruguay two years ago. And Costa Rica always plays the Americans tight on U.S. soil. In Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and Álvaro Saborío, it has players who can do some damage. They shouldn't be overlooked.
Two picked to advance