There will be some pressure to perform at this summer’s big party.
The Copa América Centenario is contrived. It’s a one-time event designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first South American championship while making a whole lot of money for organizers, networks, sponsors and the 10 U.S. venues hosting matches from June 3-26.
But it’s also the first inclusive, legitimate Pan-American championship and the deepest, most competitive tournament the U.S. men's national team will play in outside the World Cup. And coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad, which had a poor 2015, won’t be the only one with something to gain.
Lionel Messi, who will turn 31 during the 2018 World Cup, is running out of chances to win something with Argentina’s senior side. La Albiceleste lost the most recent Copa América and World Cup finals and hasn’t lifted a major trophy since 1993. Brazil, the five-time world champion, is hoping to rebound from its horrific exit from the ’14 World Cup and a quarterfinal defeat at last year’s Copa América. Chile, which won that competition, will look to prove that its first continental title wasn’t a fluke and that it’s now among the hemisphere’s entrenched elite. And Mexico, which surpassed its rivals to the north at last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, will renew its pursuit of greater respect in the south.
So far, the Centenario has made headlines thanks to the scandals engulfing soccer’s governing bodies. Would the tournament be among the casualties? Ultimately, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the remnants of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL stepped up and saved it. On Sunday evening, the Copa finally will take shape as something more than a sporting fantasy, marketing ploy or business venture. There, the 16 participants will be drawn into four groups of four teams at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom (8 p.m. ET; Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes), and the path to a one-of-a-kind title will be established. There is compelling competition ahead and for those who take advantage, significant opportunity.
After falling in last year’s Gold Cup and the ensuing Confederations Cup playoff, the U.S. now has a chance to get back on track and rediscover some of its 2013-14 swagger. Klinsmann won’t want to have to explain two sub-par summers in a row. There’s plenty of talent in the Centenario field, but there’s also a bit of give. No matter how Sunday’s lottery plays out, the U.S. should be able to chart a path to the knockout rounds.
“It will be a huge pleasure. It will be an honor for us to have them in the United States and I can’t wait to see who’s playing who,” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer this week. “People will start after the draw to realize how big this tournament actually is … To measure ourselves with the best nations in South America and our region, that is big time. You want to do well.”
Here’s a look at the draw and the outlook for Klinsmann’s team:
All 10 CONMEBOL/South American nations will be joined by six CONCACAF teams. Those six were determined largely by a series of competitions held over the past two years. The U.S. and Mexico, the past two Gold Cup champs, always were going to be included. Costa Rica advanced as the 2014 Central American champion and Jamaica made it after winning the ’14 Caribbean Cup. The final two Copa berths were determined by a playoff featuring the top four finishers from last summer’s Gold Cup that hadn’t already qualified. Panama and Haiti emerged.
Each of the four first-round groups will contain one team from each of the four pots outlined below. The top two finishers in each group following round-robin play will move on to the quarterfinals. The semis will be June 21-22 in Houston and Chicago and the Copa América final will take place June 26 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
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Pot 1: USA (A), Brazil (B), Mexico (C), Argentina (D)
The traditional powers, and biggest draws, from CONCACAF and CONMEBOL are seeded and can’t meet each other until the quarterfinals. The U.S. and Mexico each have Copa América history. The U.S. was invited to the South American tournament in 1993, 1995 and 2007, going winless on its first and third trips but advancing to the semis in ’95 after defeating Chile and Argentina in the first round.
Mexico has been a more frequent guest. El Tri has played in nine Copas and done well, winning the silver medal in ’93 and ’01 and finishing third three times.
Pot 2: Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay
The pot containing the remaining higher-ranked South American nations will be the last to be drawn on Sunday evening, and it’s easy to understand why. Let the tension build. It is from here that the group stage’s marquee match-ups will be determined. All four are among the top 13 ranked teams on the planet (the U.S. currently is 32nd) and each will present a prohibitive for the hosts.
Ecuador, which might look like the most manageable hurdle on the surface, has started CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying competition 4-0-0. That includes October’s 2-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires. Colombia’s recent form hasn’t been as good but Los Cafeteros still are loaded with talent like James Rodríguez, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado. Uruguay, which features Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and Chile would surprise no one if they were playing in the final.
Pot 3: Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama
The four CONCACAF qualifiers fill this pot, ensuring that each group contains at least one North American team and that the U.S. will face one regional rival and two South American opponents in the first round. Costa Rica, a 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist, should be the class of the pot and will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 0-3-1 Gold Cup performance.
Panama was robbed of a spot in the Gold Cup decider in last summer’s controversial semifinal loss to Mexico and started off World Cup qualifying with a road win over Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz were the surprise of the Gold Cup, becoming the first Caribbean team to make the final since the 1991 reboot after upsetting the U.S. in Atlanta. Inexperienced Haiti also showed well, giving the Americans all they could handle in the group stage before falling to Jamaica in the quarters.
None should be taken lightly, but the U.S. should be expected to beat each of these teams on home soil. Until struggling to beat visiting CONCACAF rivals becomes a pattern—and if it does, Klinsmann needs to go—last summer should be regarded as an outlier.
Pot 4: Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela
The remaining CONMEBOL countries comprise Pot 4 and present unpredictable challenges. There’s talent here, but not nearly as much pedigree. For the U.S., this is the game that should determine advancement.
At this point, Paraguay and Peru appear to be the tougher opponents. The former is always tough to break down and has started World Cup qualifying 2-1-1, while Peru boasts talented veterans (Juan Manuel Vargas, Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán to name a few) and is coming off a third-place finish at the 2015 Copa América. Bolivia and Venezuela have been struggling over the past year and look beatable on paper, but a win over any South American team never can be taken for granted.
The Americans are unlikely to win the Copa América, but they should be expected to get past the group stage. The U.S. should be favored in two of its three first-round games and has plenty of lessons from 2015 upon which to draw, starting with the establishment of a cohesive and experienced back four. There’s too much attacking talent in this competition to take risks, and Klinsmann will have next month’s World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala and training time prior to the Copa to find some defensive chemistry.
The U.S., already earmarked for Group A, will have to manage a lot of travel. The first round begins on June 3 in Santa Clara, California, continues four days later in Chicago then concludes on June 11 in Philadelphia.
If the Americans finish first, it’s back across the country to Seattle for a June 16 quarterfinal. Finish second, and they’ll head up I-95 to East Rutherford.
While a runner-up spot might seem like the more comfortable scenario, it also could mean a quicker exit from the Copa. The quarterfinal bracket pits A2 against the Group B winner, which likely will be Brazil—a team that has dominated the Americans. The Seleção are 17-1-0 all-time against the U.S. and have won the three games played this decade by a combined 10-2. Brazil may falter in the first round, but Klinsmann’s better bet at a longer Copa run is to win Group A. He’ll know more about the challenge ahead on Sunday.
The best-case scenario from Sunday's draw is likely a group featuring Ecuador, Haiti and Bolivia. The worst-case scenario features Uruguay, Costa Rica and Peru.
“Once you kind of have your own group and you see if you would go through that group who would you meet then in the next stage, it obviously gives you a lot more meat to the bone,” Klinsmann said. “It raises a little bit the bar.”