CONMEBOL big winner in Copa America Centenario

Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain, right, gathers the ball as he prepares to score a goal past U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain, right, gathers the ball as he prepares to score a goal past U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan. AP

The Copa America Centenario comes to a close Sunday with the championship match between Argentina and Chile, clearly the two best teams in this tournament. No matter who wins, two things are clear after the exciting three-week event:

The United States would make a great host for the 2026 World Cup. Heading into the final weekend, the average attendance for Copa matches was 46,000 people, which is remarkable considering the tournament was organized in just seven months and in danger of being canceled a year ago because of the FIFA scandal. Despite the big crowds, the Copa has not had the ugly fan riots and game disruptions that have stained the Euro 2016 tournament in France.

TV ratings were also impressive. A Fox Sports 1 record 3.29 million people tuned in to the semifinal between the United States and Argentina, and 4.8 million watched that match in Spanish on Univision.

We also were reminded, much to the dismay of the U.S. Soccer Federation and its fans, that the South American teams of CONMEBOL overall are still a step above those from North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Traditional CONCACAF powers United States and Mexico were outscored 11-0 by Argentina and Chile. All six CONCACAF teams lost at least one game by more than two goals, and Haiti lost two by that margin whereas only two South American teams had losses by more than two goals — and both were to top-ranked Argentina.

South America’s star players Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli), Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich) and Juan Cuadrado (Juventus) play for Europe’s biggest clubs and face world-class competition week in and week out.

The same cannot be said of most of CONCACAF’s best players. There are some exceptions. American goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard play in the English Premier League, as do Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin. But they don’t play on the best teams and are rarely exposed to Champions League-level matches. Mexico’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez plays for Bayer Leverkusen and Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas plays at Real Madrid, but he was injured and sat out the Copa

More proof that there’s a gap? Venezuela, which is mired in last place in South American World Cup qualifying and is the only team without a win, was able to score a goal on Argentina, hit one off the crossbar and miss a penalty kick that would have made it 4-2. The U.S. team did not do as well.

Nevertheless, getting to the third-place game has to be considered progress for Jurgen Klinsmann’s group. He said before the tournament that his goal was reaching the final four. That they did. And though they lost 4-0 to Argentina in the semifinal and looked outclassed in doing so, we have to remember that Argentina is the 2014 World Cup runner-up, the top-ranked team in the world and features arguably the world’s best player in Messi. The United States, by contrast, has won five World Cup games in the past half-century.

▪ Euro 2016 Round of 16: The European championships are in their knockout stages, and there are so many wonderful story lines in the upcoming Round of 16 match-ups. The bracket looks lopsided because Germany, Spain, England, Italy and France are all in the same half, but that’s only because England and Spain failed to win their groups.

On Sunday, we have host France against gritty Ireland, which stunned Italy in the group stage. That match is followed by World Cup champion Germany against Slovakia.

The 3 p.m. match Sunday should be a good one, with Belgium, trying to shed its underachiever label, going up against undefeated Hungary, with 40-year-old sweatpants-wearing goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly.

On Monday, Italy plays Spain in a rematch of the 2012 final, and then England plays Cinderella team Iceland, which has taken underdog to a whole new level.

▪ South American clash: Argentina's River Plate is playing Colombia's America de Cali in a friendly at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale at 7 p.m. July 9.

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▪ Strikers vs. Orlando City: The Fort Lauderdale Strikers will try to make it two wins in a row over Major League Soccer teams when it faces Orlando City on the road Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup. The Strikers are coming off a win over D.C. United.

Who’s leading

MLS: East — Philadelphia (26), New York (22), NYCFC (21), Montreal (20), Toronto (19). West — Colorado (32), Dallas (28), Real Salt Lake (27), L.A. (22), K.C., Vancouver and San Jose (21).

NWSL: Portland (20), Chicago (18), Washington (17), West N.Y., Orlando (15).

On the tube

Sunday: France vs. Ireland (9 a.m., ESPN), Germany vs. Slovakia (noon, ESPN), Hungary vs. Belgium (3 p.m., ESPN), Argentina vs. Chile (8 p.m., FS1, Univision).

Monday: Italy vs. Spain (noon, ESPN2), England vs. Iceland (3 p.m., ESPN2).