- - Thursday, June 2, 2016

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If the Copa America Centenario was looking for a hype man, it found a good one in Jurgen Klinsmann.

The U.S. national team coach has called it “the biggest competition in the United States since the 1994 World Cup.” He said the 16-team tournament, featuring the top nations from North and South America, easily competes with this summer’s illustrious European Championship.

And he stressed that his players understand it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” chance for the U.S., as the host nation, to puts its stamp on the soccer world.

“We have a group of players together that are very, very hungry,” Klinsmann said. “They want to show the soccer world that we are ready here to compete. Obviously, we want to do well. We want to get as far in the tournament as we can, but we also want to showcase our game to the rest of the world because down the road we’d love to host the World Cup again.”

The Copa America kicks off on Friday when the U.S. faces Colombia at Levi’s Stadium. Although the tournament typically is a South American championship, this 100th anniversary edition will feature six North American nations and take place across 10 U.S. cities.

The U.S., which also faces Costa Rica and Paraguay in the group stage, normally would have to wait until the World Cup in 2018 to again face top-notch opposition. Thus, the chance to take on Colombia, the world’s No. 3-ranked team, is a special occasion. Potential knockout round clashes with Brazil and Argentina also entice.

“When opportunities like this come around, you want to take full advantage,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “The fact that it’s being played in the United States means that there’s the potential of the profile of the whole tournament to be that much bigger.”

While the U.S. is coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish at last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and an uneven start to World Cup qualifying, there’s a degree of optimism thanks to a new generation of national team players seemingly ready to leave their mark.

Christian Pulisic, a 17-year-old prospect who has already broken into the rotation for German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund, became the youngest goal-scorer in national team history in a tune-up win over Bolivia on Saturday.

Darlington Nagbe, a Liberian-born 25-year-old who gained citizenship in September, has emerged as an effective option off the bench. Bobby Wood, 23, looks like a promising replacement for injured striker Jozy Altidore.

“Young players can only grow if you give them time to play, young players can only grow if they can fail,” Klinsmann said. “If they don’t get these opportunities to come in and get minutes, they will never grow.”

There’s also enthusiasm surrounding a 4-3-3 formation introduced by Klinsmann in recent months, with Bradley shifted to a defensive midfield position and veteran Clint Dempsey anchoring a three-man front line.

Bradley in particular has been rejuvenated by the adjustment, looking more comfortable as a conduit between the back line and attack than he did in the advanced position he played in the World Cup in 2014.

“For us, it’s important that we know we have different systems that we can play with,” Klinsmann said. “We are making progress, we are fine-tuning elements, we are feeling confident. We can’t wait to challenge the big names from South America.”

Doing so is no small task against a Colombia team led by reigning World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez. While Colombia plays attractive soccer, the Americans understand they’re in for a grind once the competitive juices get flowing Friday.

For a tournament of this billing, they expect nothing less.

“They’re a physical team — they get rough, they get nasty,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “It’s not going to be a nice little friendly game. It’s not a warm-up — it’s a tournament game.”

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