For months now, as soccer fans in America were captivated by Leicester City’s magical English Premier League run and the Champions League playoffs, U.S. men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been trying to divert some attention to the Copa America Centenario, a 16-team, 24-day tournament which opens Friday in Santa Clara, Calif., with a 9:30 p.m. match between the United States and Colombia.
The special 100th anniversary edition of the sport’s oldest international tournament is “a once-in-lifetime opportunity for soccer in our country; a really, really big deal,’’ Klinsmann said during a team camp in Miami a few weeks ago.
How big a deal?
It features five of the world’s top 10 teams, four of the eight quarterfinalists from the last World Cup and a list of marquee players that includes Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez (both injured, but expected to play), Colombia’s James Rodriguez, Mexico’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, Brazil’s Willian, and U.S. regulars Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey.
One star that will be missing is Brazil’s Neymar, who was asked by his club Barcelona to choose between Copa and the Rio Olympics and he chose the Olympics.
It will be the biggest men’s soccer event on U.S. soil since the 1994 World Cup, a chance for American fans to see five-time World Cup champion Brazil, powerhouse Argentina, current South American leader Ecuador, world No. 3 Chile and No. 4 Colombia, 15-time Copa winner Uruguay, and regional champion Mexico.
“The Copa America on U.S. soil, for us, is an amazing opportunity,” Klinsmann said. “Having these countries and top players coming up to the U.S. is huge. It’s the biggest stage we can have other than a World Cup. This is a rehearsal for hopefully a World Cup again in the United States in 2026. It’s going to be the showcase for the United States and for our players to show everybody how good they are. Once this starts on June 3, it’s gonna rock. It doesn’t get much bigger than this.”
The special-edition Copa almost was canceled. Soccer officials from many of the participating nations were indicted in the FIFA bribery scandal last year, as were executives of CONCACAF, the regional federation that was helping organize the event. But they were able to pull it together, the first time a Copa will be played away from South America.
Although the U.S. is not expected to win, expectations are high and the pressure is on Klinsmann, whose team flopped with a fourth-place finish in the Gold Cup last summer, a loss to Mexico in a Confederations Cup playoff, and mixed results in recent World Cup qualifiers.
Klinsmann has said his goal to reach the final four.
It won’t be easy. The U.S. plays Colombia on Friday, Costa Rica on June 7 in Chicago and Paraguay on June 11 in Philadelphia.
Colombia’s “Cafeteros” were quarterfinalists at the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America. Their team is led by Rodriguez, who plays for Real Madrid, Carlos Bacca (AC Milan) and Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina.
Although Costa Rica will miss injured Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the “Ticos” reached the quarters at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Gold Cup. Paraguay has been playing well in recent World Cup qualifiers, and has a veteran squad.
“We have to treat the Colombia game like a final,” Klinsmann said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The U.S. roster is a mix of thirty-somethings Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and young talents such as slick-passing 25-year-old midfielder Darlington Nagbe of the Portland Timbers; 17-year-old wunderkind Christina Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund; and 23-year-old Bobby Wood, whose 17 goals in the Bundesliga second division this season were most-ever by an American in Germany and earned him a promotion to Hamburg.
Weston’s Alejandro Bedoya, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High, is also on the roster. Boca Raton’s Jozy Altidore is out with a hamstring injury.
“This is a huge tournament for us, and for me, personally, because my family is Colombian,” Bedoya said. “It’s a chance for us to compete on the same stage as some of the world’s biggest stars from South America. For a lot of players seeking transfers and new contracts, this is a huge opportunity.”
And, it is yet another test for Klinsmann, who was hired five years ago amid much celebration. One of the most prolific strikers of all time, Klinsmann was expected to take U.S. men’s soccer to the next level, to introduce a more creative style of attack and a team that could get over the hump and join the world’s elite.
He has had mixed reviews thus far. His team won the 2013 Gold Cup, but finished fourth last summer, including a stunning loss to Jamaica. Team USA advanced from the Group of Death in the 2014 World Cup, and battled valiantly against Belgium. But they hit rock-bottom with an embarrassing 2-0 loss at 95th-ranked Guatemala in late-March.
A good showing in the Copa would get some of the critics off Klinsmann’s back.
Copa America Centenario
▪ What: 100th anniversary edition of the sport’s oldest international tournament.
▪ Who: 16 teams (10 South America, 6 from Central, North America and Caribbean).
▪ When: June 3-26.
▪ Where: Santa Clara, Calif.; New York; Foxborough, Mass.; Philadelphia; Orlando; Houston; Chicago; Glendale, Ariz.; Pasadena, Calif.; Seattle.
▪ Defending champion: Chile.
▪ Top players: Lionel Messi (Argentina), James Rodriguez (Colombia), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Alexis Sanchez (Chile), Willian (Brazil), Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Mexico), Carlos Bacca (Colombia), Jose Maria Gimenez (Uruguay), Clint Dempsey (USA), Michael Bradley (USA), Wes Morgan (Jamaica).
▪ TV: Fox, FS1, FS2. All games on Fox mobile apps. Also, Univision, UniMas, and Univision Deportes.
▪ Where to watch in South Florida: Fritz and Franz Bierhaus (Coral Gables), Fado Irish Pub (Brickell), Wynwood Watch the Cup parties (2250 NW 2 Ave), George’s (South Miami), Sports Grill (various locations), Duffy’s (various locations), Fox & Hounds (Fort Lauderdale), Waxy O’Conners (Fort Lauderdale), Stout Bar and Grill (Oakland Park), McSorleys Beach Pub (Fort Lauderdale), Tilted Kilt (Fort Lauderdale), Mickey Byrne’s Irish Pub (Hollywood), Lion & Eagle (Boca Raton).
FIELD BREAKDOWN (TEAM, FIFA RANK)
▪ USA (29): Seeking redemption after poor performance in 2015 Gold Cup. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be on the hot seat if team doesn’t advance from group stage. Watch for 17-year-old Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund).
▪ Colombia (4): Quarterfinalists at 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America, where they lost in PKs to rival Argentina. James Rodriguez (Real Madrid) and Carlos Bacca (AC Milan) will be key for the attack, and Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina allowed just one goal in four games last Copa.
▪ Costa Rica (25): Los Ticos will be missing injured Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, a huge loss. Team reached quarters at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Gold Cup, and beat U.S. in a friendly last year.
▪ Paraguay (39): Semifinalists in the 2015 Copa America, the Paraguayans have lost just one of their six recent World Cup qualifiers. 34-year-old Roque Santa Cruz is the leading scorer.
▪ Brazil (7): Eight-time Copa champions, last in 2007. Neymar is skipping the tournament for the Olympics. Coach Dunga has had mixed results, and team is in sixth place in World Cup qualifying so far. A young squad tries to turn things around.
▪ Ecuador (12): The surprise leader so far in South American World Cup qualifying with wins over Argentina and Uruguay. Forward Felipe Caicedo is injured, but the team is still capable of a deep run.
▪ Haiti (71): Reached the Copa by upsetting Trinidad and Tobago, but is winless through four World Cup qualifying matches this year. French-born Duckens Nazon is a player to watch.
▪ Peru (46): Finished third in the last Copa, and Paulo Guerrero tied for top scorer with four goals. Inconsistency has been a problem. Young players Renato Tapia (20) and Andy Polo (21) could help.
▪ Mexico (16): Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez had a huge year at Bayer Leverkusen with 26 goals, and is four goals shy of becoming Mexico’s all-time leading scorer. Veterans Rafael Marquez and Andres Guardado are back.
▪ Uruguay (9): 15-time champion, last in 2011. Barcelona star Luis Suarez, who scored 59 goals this season, injured his hamstring and may not play until the knockout rounds. Still, they have enough talent to advance.
▪ Jamaica (55): The Reggae Boyz shocked the USA in the Gold Cup semis last summer, and reached the final with three shutouts before losing to Mexico. They lost only 1-0 to Argentina and Uruguay as guests of the 2015 Copa America, and feature Leicester City’s Wes Morgan. But they’ve struggled of late.
▪ Venezuela (74): La Vinotinto sits in the South American World Cup qualifying basement, the only team without a win through six games. Former goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel, now the head coach, is trying to make the biggest save of his career. Watch for Salomon Rondon, Tomas Rincon, Roberto Rosales.
▪ Argentina (1): 14-time champions, last in 1993. Five-time Player of the Year Lionel Messi is questionable with a back injury. Argentina lost in the final of the last World Cup (to Germany) and Copa America (to Chile). Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain lead a loaded roster.
▪ Chile (3): The defending Copa champions are ranked higher than ever, and could go far with Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez leading the attack and Barcelona keeper Claudio Bravo in goal.
▪ Panama (52): Reached Gold Cup semifinals last summer on strength of former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Not a high-scoring team, but a lot of experienced players make them dangerous.
▪ Bolivia (79): The lowest-ranked team in the field. A few key players quit the team, and the bickering hasn’t stopped. The U.S. beat the Bolivians 4-0 last week in a friendly.