This past weekend, the European club soccer season came to an end as Real Madrid defeated Atlético Madrid in penalties at the UEFA Champions League final in Milan. With Europe's best team now crowned, international soccer fans can turn their attention to a very entertaining summer of marquee tournaments around the world.
The 15th edition of the UEFA European Championship begins June 10th in France, as well as the men and women’s Olympic tournaments in Brazil starting in August. While these are competitions of great importance to which I will absolutely be paying close attention, as an American soccer fan I am most excited for the Copa América Centenario. The United States was fortunate enough to be chosen as the host country for this special edition of Copa América, and the Bay Area’s Levi’s Stadium was selected as the site for the opening match between the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) and Colombia this Friday, June 3rd.
For those who only tune in every four years for the FIFA World Cup, the Copa América is a men’s international soccer tournament between the national teams of the South American soccer confederation, CONMEBOL, to effectively determine the continental champion. CONMEBOL only has 10 members (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) so teams from other federations are often invited to give the field more depth. Copa is held every four years, in World Cup off years, with the most recent Copa América taking place just last summer (won for the first time by Chile).
So if it’s held every four years and the latest iteration took place in 2015, why is there another Copa América only a year later? The answer is simple; this is the 100 year anniversary of the oldest continental soccer competition (hence the name Copa América Centenario). To mark the occasion, a special anniversary tournament was organized and six CONCACAF nations (the North American equivalent of CONMEBOL) were invited or qualified to join the party, including the United States who were not only chosen to participate, but also picked to host the festivities.
In addition to the aforementioned South American squads and the USMNT, the national teams of Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico and Panama round out the formidable field of 16. The competition follows the familiar soccer tournament format consisting of a group stage, in which the 16 nations are drawn into four groups of four teams for pool play, and the two teams from each group that accumulate the most points during this stage (wins are worth 3, a draw is worth 1, loss is 0) advance to the win-or-go-home knockout rounds. The four groups are as follows; Group A (United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay), Group B (Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti, Peru), Group C (Mexico, Uruguay, Jamaica, Venezuela), and Group D (Argentina, Chile, Panama, Bolivia).
I’m personally content catching these matches in a dark bar with a cold beer, but if you would like to see some of the biggest soccer stars in the world in person under the sun, the group stages and knockout rounds will take place at ten venues across America. The sites include CenturyLink Field (Seattle, WA), Soldier Field (Chicago, IL), Gillette Stadium (Foxborough, MA), MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, NJ), Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia, PA), Camping World Stadium (Orlando, FL), NRG Stadium (Houston, TX), University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, AZ), the Rose Bowl (Pasadena, CA) and Levi’s Stadium (Bay Area).
Levi’s hosts four matches in the Bay’s backyard, including the opening match between USMNT and Colombia on June 3rd (supplemented by the official opening ceremonies and musical performances by Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin, American recording artist Jason Derulo, and Canadian reggae fusion band MAGIC!). The other three matches include a Group D tilt between Argentina and Chile (ranked #1 and #3 respectively in the latest FIFA Rankings) on June 6th, a Group C match between Uruguay and Jamaica on June 13th, and a quarterfinal match on June 18th to be contended between the winner of Group C and runner-up of Group D (likely either Uruguay or Mexico against Argentina or Chile).
This affords Bay Area sports fans the opportunity to not only watch and root for your American national team, but the ability to see global soccer superstars including Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero (Argentina), Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal (Chile), Juan Cuadrado and James Rodríguez (Colombia), Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani (Uruguay), and if Mexico passes through the Bay, Chicharito himself, Javier Hernández. Perhaps the only major nation without the potential to appear in the Bay is Brazil, however don’t rue the inability to watch Barcelona star Neymar on American soil. The Brazilian football federation decided to only include Neymar on the Olympic roster, clearly prioritizing the Olympic Games, having never won the gold medal in the soccer competition and looking to do so as the host nation.
If you can’t make it out to Santa Clara, Fox Sports and Univision have the broadcasting rights in the US for the 100th Copa. Other marquee group stage matches worth watching include Brazil against Ecuador from the Rose Bowl on June 4th, Mexico against Uruguay from Glendale, AZ on June 5th, and Colombia against Costa Rica from Houston, TX on June 11th. As mentioned, the USMNT faces Colombia in the Group A opener June 3rd, then faces Costa Rica in Chicago on June 7th and Paraguay in Philadelphia on June 11th. The tournament will last most of June, with the final taking place on June 26th in East Rutherford, NJ.
What are the odds the USMNT appears in the Copa América final you ask? Well, not great. But don’t write them off as an early exit candidate just yet. Despite their unceremonious dismissal from the 2015 Gold Cup via a semifinal loss to Jamaica, and an extremely disconcerting loss to Guatemala in a World Cup Qualifying match this past March that had me pricing the domain name firejurgenklinsmann.com, the squad has shown signs of life during a three-match exhibition run this past week in preparation for the Copa.
The USMNT defeated a weak Puerto Rico team 3-1 in lackluster fashion before turning in a pair of impressive performances against CONMEBOL sides that will appear at the Copa (including a 1-0 win over Ecuador for which I was in attendance in Frisco, TX and a 4-0 win over Bolivia in Kansas City). Even a draw against the 4th ranked national team in the world (Colombia) would be hard-earned, but I still expect the USMNT to accumulate enough points in their matches against Costa Rica and Paraguay to advance to the knockout rounds as the Group A runner-up. If that is accomplished, the USMNT would face the Group B winner (likely a Neymar-less Brazil or an Ecuador team we have just beaten), which presents a not-so-strange scenario in which the US could find themselves making a surprise semifinal run.
If the USMNT is to achieve an impressive showing this summer, and restore our faith in Jürgen Klinsmann, it will require balancing a roster split between veteran names and fresh faces. Stalwarts Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard will be joined by 2014 World Cup roster members Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Brad Guzan, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, DeAndre Yedlin, and Graham Zusi. Goal-scoring forward Jozy Altidore, unfortunately, will not be available due to injury. Even the San Jose Earthquakes’ own and Bay Area native Chris Wondolowski made the cut, at the expense of Stanford great Jordan Morris, likely due to his reputation as a top finisher in the box (despite his gargantuan miss against Belgium at the last World Cup). Other USMNT players poised for breakout performances include MLS stars Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers) and Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), and a pair of players plying their craft in the German Bundesliga, Bobby Wood (Hamburg) and 17-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund).
So whether you plan to hop on StubHub and bask in the glory of meaningful international soccer firsthand or take it all in on a television screen in the comfort of your local watering hole, buckle your proverbial chinstrap and get ready for an amazing summer filled with world-class soccer... And Go USA!