You’ve probably noticed the soccer hype start to pick up around the country over the past few weeks, surrounding the start of a strange event called the “Copa America Centenario.”
Trust me - the hype is warranted and will only grow over the next few weeks.
But what exactly is the Copa America? And why should we care?
Glad you asked!
Consider this your official “Copa America for Dummies” guide in handy Q&A format to help you understand what the fuss is all about, and get you primed for the start of the three week tournament.
Q: What the heck is the Copa America?
A: Copa America is a tournament that is played every four years (or so) among the 10 countries in South America governed by the body known as CONMEBOL. Typically, two nations from another area (usually North America) are invited, bringing the total to 12 teams.
To celebrate the 100th year of Copa America (thus, the Centenario), the field has been expanded to 16 teams, with the additional six countries being members of CONCACAF - the body that governs soccer in North and Central America.
Q: Sounds like fun. But why should I care?
A: A number of reasons, but chiefly, the United States is not only one of the CONCACAF members participating in the tournament, but the event is being played in the USA. It’s the actually the first time the Copa America will be played outside of South America.
While its not the World Cup, this year’s event is about as close as it will get in terms of excitement for the USMNT until 2018. Copa America is an event that nations actually care about and want to win, so you’ll see most teams put their best on the field. The fact its an Olympic year complicates things in a few cases, but its still far better than exhibition matches or friendlies. One name noticeably absent from the field is Neymar Jr. (Brazil), who will instead compete for his country in Rio later this summer.
That said, its also a chance to watch some of the best in the world play right here in the USA. Lionel Messi (Argentina) gets my vote as the best player in the world, and headlines a group that also includes James Rodriguez (Columbia), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), and several others.
Q: You said something about the USA…how do the Yanks look?
A: Well, it’s complicated, as it always is for the USA when it comes to soccer.
The 2014 World Cup was tremendous. The US advanced from the “group of death,” and took a quality Belgium team to the breaking point that current sits #2 in the official world rankings. But things have been mostly downhill since then.
The second half of 2015 was a disaster, with the US losing in several higher profile tournaments, and nearly eliminated from World Cup qualifying by Guatemala - not exactly a soccer powerhouse.
Still, the Americans have looked better recently in tune-up matches, and there is reason to be optimistic. There’s a strong veteran core that will help lead this team. Household names like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley will play key roles, just as they did in the World Cup. Other veterans include Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, Matt Besler, and several other familiar faces.
2014 World Cup hero goal keeper Tim Howard is on the roster, but will take a backseat to Brad Guzan as the primary option (at least for now).
Perhaps the bigger story are some of the young players expected to play key roles for the US. The name that you’ll hear the most about is Christian Pulisic, who at the ripe old age of 17 will be a part of the US squad. He’s a dynamic playmaker that is already getting first team reps with Brossuia Dortmund, a well respected club in Germany. He could well be the future of USA Soccer.
But Pulisic is far from the only young player that will play a role for the US - DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and others will all feature for the Yanks in the tournament. 20-year old GK Ethan Horvath is also on the roster, who could be the future of the position for the United States.
Q: Any chance the USA surprises everyone and wins it?
A: You mean the whole thing? Well, the odds are better than the US winning a World Cup, but only slightly.
Five of the top ten teams in the official FIFA world rankings are in the field, including #1 Argentina, #3 Columbia, and #5 Chile. #16 Mexico is also in the field, and might be playing some of the best soccer in the western hemisphere right now. The USA currently sits at #31 to give you some context.
The USA would do well to advance past the group stage, and have a realistic shot of accomplishing that goal. Columbia appears to be the class of Group A, and the United States should battle it out with Costa Rica to take second the group.
Q: Alright, so what are you predictions?
A: Glad to asked. Here’s my picks for each group and the bracket round, with the group winner listed first:
GROUP A - Columbia, USA
GROUP B - Ecuador, Brazil
GROUP C - Mexico, Uruguay
GROUP D - Argentina, Chile
QUARTERFINAL ROUND: Columbia def. Brazil, Argentina def. Uruguay, Ecuador def. USA, Mexico def. Chile
SEMIFINAL ROUND - Argentina def. Columbia, Mexico def. Ecuador
CHAMPIONSHIP - Argentina def. Mexico.
Joe Quinn is a radio host for AM 590 ESPN Omaha. Opinions are those of the writer.