Copa America ‘Centenario’ confirmed for U.S.; Sun Life Stadium a possible venue

The worst-kept soccer secret in the Western Hemisphere was let out of the bag Thursday morning at a lavish press conference in Bal Harbour. A special “Centenario” edition of Copa America, marking the 100th anniversary of the South American tournament, will be hosted across the United States from June 3-26, 2016.

Sun Life Stadium is one of the venues expected to be considered because of its proximity to South and Central America and the Caribbean, and its track record of huge crowds for international matches.

A Brazil vs. Honduras friendly at Sun Life last year drew 71,124 fans, and last summer 67,273 showed up for Real Madrid vs. Chelsea. Next month, Sun Life will host five World Cup teams before they head to Brazil – England vs. Ecuador June 4, England vs. Honduras June 7, and Ghana vs. South Korea June 9.

“It’s terrific we’ll be hosting in the U.S., the biggest soccer event here since the 1994 World Cup, and from an American market perspective, it’s fantastic having this sort of event back so we can again showcase what we can do,’’ said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which will be heavily involved in the planning of the Centenario.

U.S. cities will enter a bid process to become hosts, and it is unknown exactly how many venues will be chosen. It is expected to be a dozen or more. Other stadiums that could get games include the Rose Bowl in Pasadena; MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J; the Citrus Bowl in Orlando; RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.; Stanford Stadium; and Reliant Stadium in Houston.

“We have a number of different models involving many cities,’’ Gulati said. “In theory, we could play in 32 cities and not have to do a dollar of infrastructure and have stadiums ready to go at 70-plus thousand. We’re not going to do that, but it’s wide open how many venues we will use.’’

It is the first time the Copa America is held away from South American soil, and, in the words of CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, this will be “a true Copa America’’ with teams from all the Americas.

“I congratulate CONMEBOL (the South American confederation) for inspiring players and fans throughout a century of fantastic football, and thank them for extending the legacy of this hugely successful event to CONCACAF territory,” Webb said. “The American continent may have been discovered in 1492, but I can’t imagine a better way to unite this continent than with football and an exceptional celebration of talent in 2016.”

CONMEBOL President Eugenio Figueredo suggested this one-time event could lead to a permanent alliance with CONCACAF, but he didn’t go so far as to say the continental groups were ready to merge for World Cup qualifying.

“We are proud to play a leading role in the celebration of the centennial of a tournament born to unite all America,’’ Figueredo said. “We want to be good neighbors. A permanent association with CONCACAF will help both confederations be stronger and more competitive.’’

The regular quadrennial Copa America will be held in 2015 in Chile and 2019 in Brazil, and the 2016 Centenario would be a special off-year event. It is not yet on the official FIFA calendar, which would obligate clubs to release players to their national teams. But Figueredo said he has been in talks with FIFA about that and seemed confident top players would be participating in the 2016 tournament.

All 10 South American teams are in the field (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela), as well as the United States, Mexico and four more teams from CONCACAF. The champions of the 2014 Caribbean Cup and Copa CentroAmericano would get automatic berths. The two remaining teams would come via a playoff among the top four finishers in the 2015 Gold Cup who had not already qualified.

“It’s a chance for us to have some very good competition on an official basis, so Jurgen (Klinsmann) is very excited about it because we don’t get that very often,’’ Gulati said. “It’s a huge plus. There are scheduling challenges with Gold Cups in ‘15 and ‘17, this tournament in ‘16, Olympics in ‘16, but from a competition and player development point of view, it’s fantastic.’’

The 2016 Copa America will overlap with the European Championships, which are being held June 10-July 10. It will also fall two months before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, and during the Major League Soccer season.

Among the former players in the audience for the announcement were Cobi Jones, who played three World Cups for the U.S. team, and Kleberson, who played two for Brazil.

“This is an amazing event, and opens up a whole new market for U.S. fans and players,’’ Jones said. “A lot of the focus the past years has been Europe, but this will open up and showcase the South American style of play and I think that’s going to help the sport in this country.

“This will raise the bar. As we’ve seen in the World Cup, CONCACAF has been stronger and stronger over the years, and this will give it even more credibility around the world.’’

Kleberson said South American players have come to respect teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean: “Soccer in the United States has grown a lot, just look at their results in the World Cup,’’ he said. “The whole region has gotten stronger, and having one tournament for all the Americas is very exciting for everyone.’’

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