Summer of Soccer: Copa America Centenario Preview
Welcome to the summer of soccer. With the European Championship starting in a few weeks, it is time to preview the other big tournament of the summer: the Copa America Centenario. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of its inception, and as a result, more teams were able to qualify for the special edition of the South American giant. This means more soccer, more drama, and more South American madness brought north. For the first time in tournament history, the United States will host the tournament, and record attendances are expected. The tournament is loaded with stars, from Argentina’s Messi, Brazil’s Oscar and Dani Alves (Neymar will play for Brazil in the Olympics in Rio instead.) Columbia’s James Rodriguez, who just won the Champions League with Real Madrid. Others include Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Mexico’s Javier Hernandez and the US’ very own Clint Dempsey. In terms of star-power, it cannot get much better. The matches will be intense, rivalries will be fierce, and the competition will be its best yet. Let’s dive into the groups and see which teams will come out and make waves the rest of the way.
Teams: The United States, Columbia, Costa Rica and Paraguay
If there was a “Group of Death” in this tournament, Group A would be it, and the USMNT are in it again. All eyes will be on them and their gaffer, Jurgen Klinsmann. If the US has a successful Copa Amerca, it not only saves his job, but also puts them in prime position for the World Cup. Colombia is also loaded with talent, but do not overlook the Ticos of Costa Rica and a rugged Paraguayan side.
For Jurgen Klinsmann, this tournament is huge in terms of respectability, and overall job security. The US coach boldly targeted a semifinal appearance, and with the young-guns that he has selected, it can be done. If they falter, it could mean Klinsmann getting the ax. This is arguably the USMNT’s deepest squad since the World Cup, if not ever. However, to play well, they must put the embarrassing string of performances behind them. They finished a dismal fourth last year in the Gold Cup, had an awful run of World Cup qualifiers, and they had no energy. That has all changed since March; they have won their last six matches and are on a roll. They have depth particularly at the midfield position with Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, and 17-year-old stud Christian Pulisic. Although fans were particularly surprised not to see fellow young striker Jordan Morris on the final roster, the USMNT still have firepower with Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey, and Chris Wondolowski. If the Yanks are to get out of a very difficulty group, expect Klinsmann to rely heavily on the midfielders.
Los Cafeteros have certainly taken a step back since they made their quarterfinal appearance at the World Cup and last year’s Copa America tournament, but they still have the fire power to win this group. They are led by Real Madrid striker James Rodriguez, and have a stellar keeper in David Ospina. They also have pacey forwards in Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez and midfielder Fredy Guarin; so yeah, they love to run, and are ridiculously fast on top of phenomenal stamina from playing in the humid conditions of their home country. Colombia must make a statement in the opening match versus the United States if they expect a chance of making a deep run. They should get out of the group and can also make a quarterfinal appearance if they play their cards right.
To be honest, Paraguay is a very difficult team to figure out. They are typically a strong defensive team, and do not have a lot of fire power. That being said, if teams underestimate their potential, Paraguay will usually take advantage and beat them. They have won the tournament twice, but not since 1979. They did, however, make the semifinals last year. The problem is that they have to make two cross-country trips in one week, and that can definitely play a toll in them not advancing to the knockout round. They are led by keeper Justo Villar, who has been a rock at the back for them, and their 34-year-old veteran striker Roque Santa Cruz. If their defense can be strong at the back, they may just sneak into the knockout round and pull off an upset.
Los Ticos are by far one of the most exciting teams in this Copa America. They shocked the world with a quarterfinal appearance in the World Cup, and another quarterfinal appearance in the Gold Cup last summer. They have had three coaches in three years, and although the Costa Ricans have enjoyed playing ‘Pura Vida” soccer, the constant turnover may finally be taking its toll on the players. Regardless, here they are trying to prove themselves to the South American superpowers. CONCACAF legends Bryan Ruiz and Joel Cambell lead the Ticos into battle, while it was just announced that keeper Keylor Navas, a Real Madrid star, will miss the tournament with an injury. It will be a battle for the top two spots, and Costa Rica can surprise a few teams on their way to a contention for that second spot to get through.
Projected Finish: 1) Colombia 2) United States 3) Costa Rica 4) Paraguay
Teams: Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti and Peru
Brazil should handily win this group even without Neymar. Ecuador should also be a solid side in the knockout stages with West Ham’s Antonio Valencia and Swansea’s Jefferson Montero. Haiti and Peru will be fighting for third, as there is no way either team will catch the leaders.
The Brazilians are missing something that we have not seen in a long time: that deadly striker. What about Neymar, you ask? Well, the Brazilian FA decided that it would be best for him to compete in the Olympics instead of the Copa America. Considering that Brazil is hosting the event, it makes sense. However, they are left without that scary good player that everyone talks about it. I’ve been watching soccer since I was 5 and I’ve always been able to tell you that one Brazilian player who is the reason why they call it “Joga Bonito”, or the Beautiful Game. This summer, they do not have Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, or Neymar. Nope. So, who do they have? Well, the Seleção are still the obvious favorite to come out of the group with a dangerous midfield. Willian is a powerful midfielder who makes brilliant runs. They also have Hulk, who admittedly had an awful World Cup. Regardless, he and another Brazilian great, Kaka, have to step up if Brazil want to go deep into the knockout stages.
The Ecuadorians are the other heavily favored team to come out of the group stage. They are currently tied with Argentina for World Cup qualifications, and are loaded with stars. They certainly have a top 3 midfield corps with Antonio Valencia of West Ham, Michael Arroyo and Jefferson Montero, they will no doubt lead Ecuador deep into the tournament. They climbed into the top 12 of the FIFA rankings, and considering their draw, have a very realistic shot of making the quarterfinals, which they have only done once, in 1997. Forward Miller Bolanos will lead Ecuador at the top, as the loss of their leading scorer, Felipe Caicedo certainly hurts, but with that deep midfield, anything is possible. They are a solid choice for a dark horse semi-finalist.
What a story the Haitians have had the past year. They shocked Latin America when they made a second round appearance at the Gold Cup. Welcome to the show, Haiti. Their main task will be to try to get a few points from the South American giants. Considering their lack of form in World Cup qualifying, winless and goalless in their past four matches, it will take a massive effort from coach Patrice Neuveu and his squad to muster any points at all. They will be the feel-good story of this tournament, as they beat Trinidad and Tobago in order to qualify. They are led by Duckens Nazon, who had 2 goals in last year’s Gold Cup, feeble to say the least. Their matchup against Peru in Seattle in all likelihood will be the most boring game of the entire tournament.
The other team that will have a very difficult time in this group is Peru. Somehow, they managed a third place finish at the Copa America last year, and I am still trying to figure out how they did it. This year, they replace about a quarter of their players from last season’s squad, and do not have the offensive firepower that they had last year. Manager Ricardo Gareca will not have a lot of options to pick from in terms of experience, as the Peruvians are extremely young. To give you a sense, their strikers only have nine international caps between them. They also have five players who have never even played for Peru before this tournament. Teams have to watch out for Paolo Guerrero though, who was tied as the leading scorer of last summer’s Copa America.
Projected Finish: 1) Brazil 2) Ecuador 3) Peru 4) Haiti
Teams: Mexico, Uruguay, Jamaica and Venezuela
The overwhelming question is surrounding Uruguay, and if they can cope without their talisman Luis Suarez, who will miss the tournament with a hamstring injury. They will look to their other strikers to step up. Mexico is one of the hottest teams right now, and are a real contender to make at least a semifinal appearance. The Reggae Boyz of Jamaica have taken a step back since their Gold Cup final appearance last year, but still can be a tough out for both Mexico and Uruguay. Venezuela is having an awful year, and that will most likely continue in this tournament.
This summer looks to be very promising for El Tri. First off, the most obvious weapon to look for is their striker, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who scored 26 goals in one of the more remarkable performances in Bundesliga history with Bayern Leverkusen. It’s simple. If Hernandez scores and continues his remarkable form, Mexico will cruise not only out of the group, but into the deep rounds of the tournament as well. Another massive factor will be the “home soil” advantage, as many Mexicans will likely make the trip across the border to see Mexico play in the biggest tournament since they hosted the World Cup. However, Mexico is deep in many places, as they bring back experienced defender Rafael Marquez, who is 37 but still kicking. They also have Andreas Guardado at midfield, who is very formidable, and proved it last summer, as he scored the game-winner in all three of Mexico’s knockout games. Will this be the team that finally ends the debate that Mexico cannot come through in the clutch in big tournaments? We will see, but based off of the run of form, it could very much appear to be so.
So, the bad news for Uruguay is that Luis Suarez is out. The good news is, they will be fine for group play. They still have Diego Godin at the back, and have Edison Cavani at the front. Their midfield consists of Cristian Rodriguez, who is pacey, and can irritate defenses with his running when he does not have the ball. The question is who else will step up? They made the World Cup Semi’s in 2010, and a quarter-final appearance in Brazil in 2014, but can they recapture that magic they had? It is going to be a difficult ask, but given their past, and current roster, it is not that much of a long-shot.
The Reggae Boyz have taken two steps back since last year’s Gold Cup finals appearance. They have had a poor run of form in World Cup play, winning one in their last five, and have also lost some key players to injury. They are led by one of the best emerging defenders in all of soccer, Leicester’s Wes Morgan. He can anchor the back line that will be tested by very pacy and powerful strikers. Their key goal scorer is Darren Mattocks, and he will have to step up big time, in order for them to have a chance of getting out of this group. The have the unfortunate draw of playing Mexico in the Rose Bowl, where it will feel more like the Stadio Azteca rather than an American stadium used for the “Granddaddy of ‘Em All.” That being said, if they can take a point from Mexico and get a win against Venezuela, they may just be in contention of catching Uruguay and beating them for that second spot.
The Venezuelans are currently riding the struggle bus. Hardcore. They have only won once since last year’s Copa America, where they finished dead last in the group. They currently sit in the bottom of the basement for World Cup qualifiers as well. They give up an average of three goals per game, and it probably will remain around that number. To say they are going to get pummeled is an understatement. Heck, they could even be held goalless throughout the entire tournament. Nothing to see here folks, moving on.
Projected Finish: 1) Mexico 2) Uruguay 3) Jamaica 4) Venezuela
Teams: Argentina,Chile, Panama and Bolivia
Analysis: This is going to be a fun group. You’ve got the winner and runner-up, plus a really fast Latin American team that is known for pulling shockers. It’s basically Messi versus everyone else. And that is what it will most likely be.
You’d be shocked to know that Argentina has not won a major tournament since 1993. Yeah, even one of the greatest of all time, Lionel Messi, has not won anything with La Albiceleste. This could very well be the year that they finally end that drought. They are loaded with stars including Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel Di Maria, and Barcelona stud Javier Mascherano. The list goes on and on. If they do not win the Copa America, it would be an embarrassment to the country considering how loaded they are with talent. They are the odds-on favorite and should have no problem devouring this group. It’s Argentina against everybody else. There is a reason why they are ranked number one in the world according to the FIFA rankings, and they should have no problem of upholding it.
The Chileans are the other exciting team in this group. They won the Copa America last year as the host country, and look to make another deep run in this year’s tournament. They have an outstanding keeper in Claudio Bravo, and are very solid at the midfield and forward positions with Eduardo Vargas, Arturo Vidal, and Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez. In a sense, it is very unfortunate that they have to end their celebration so soon, as it was their first Copa America win in 99 years. La Roja will stand as a formidable task to anyone who crosses their path. Expect another semi-final appearance.
The thing with Bolivia is, they have the most formidable home in world soccer. They play at a level of close to 12,000 feet. That being said, when they come down from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, they struggle mightily. It will be important for them to hang on for dear life against Chile and Argentina, while they play for third against Panama. They are led by Yasmani Duk of the New York Cosmos, and when he is on a roll, he’s very solid for them. This team is all about youth, as 8 of the 12 players refused to accept callups from the national team because there is political strife between the Bolivian league and the Federation. This gives the young-guns a shot to try to prove their worth, and see what the future of Bolivian soccer holds. They will give a good effort, but in all likelihood, it will not be enough.
The Panamanians are one of CONCACAF’s most exciting and young teams. They have made leaps and bounds in the past decade, and are now a true regional power and, tough opponent for any team in the tournament. They gave Mexico a real scare, and should have advanced to the finals of last year’s Gold Cup, but they got jipped by poor officiating. It’s a new tournament, and a new chance to prove that they belong with the big boys. Every player plays with a physical prowess and they are able to take advantage of it, and usually have many solid opportunities to score throughout a match. They will be led by Blas Perez, Roman Torres and Luis Tejeda. Although they are loaded with players who love to work hard and are ready to show their stuff, they were drawn with the likes of Chile and Argentina, and will most likely miss the cut. It will definitely be a chance to show the region that they are for real, and will be a threat for years to come.
Projected Finish: 1) Argentina 2) Chile 3) Panama 4) Bolivia
Argentina 3, Mexico 1
Messi will finally win a trophy with Argentina, while El Tri will come up just short.