SANTA CLARA, Calif. — One-of-a-kind spectacle or redundant cash-grab? For the Copa America Centenario, dueling identities loom large.
The tournament, which kicks off on Friday when the U.S. faces Colombia, is a special event held to celebrate 100 years of South America’s typically quadrennial championship, the Copa America. The wrinkle? The competition will take place outside the continent for the first time, with the United States playing host and six North American nations invited to fill out the 16-team field.
That means CONCACAF teams such as Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S. will clash with the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in an event being billed as the “Championship of the Americas.”
In theory, the confederations’ combined forces should give the Western Hemisphere a tournament on par with this summer’s European Championship — long the closest thing fans get to World Cup-quality competition in the four long years between editions of soccer’s global showcase.
Reality, however, could tell a slightly different story. For a team such as the U.S., the tournament provides an opportunity for coach Jurgen Klinsmann to test his players against world-class opposition in a competitive environment. A deep run also could catch the attention of the casual soccer fan whose focus would otherwise wander from the sport until the next World Cup in Russia in 2018.
But the motivation is less clear for the 10 South American nations taking part, just one year after Chile won the regularly scheduled edition of the Copa America at home. Will these teams play with passion? Or will they go through the motions as they surrender their offseason to the Copa America for a second consecutive summer?
Although most nations are bringing their top players, Brazil’s priorities were made clear when global star Neymar opted to skip the tournament so he could instead play in the Summer Olympics. David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Marcelo — all members of the 2015 FIFA/FIFPro World XI — also were omitted from Brazil’s squad.
There’s little doubt the tournament will be lucrative, with fans expected to pack football stadiums across the country to see the star power of Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez — not to mention the U.S. squad, plus a Mexico team that already chooses to play many of its “home” games stateside.
Will the spirit of this Copa America live up to those substantial financial underpinnings? That’s one key storyline to watch as the tournament unfolds. Here are five more:
What will we see out of Brazil?
The Olympic men’s tournament is predominantly an under-23 event that hardly registers in the soccer world, but the lack of a gold medal remains a blemish in Brazil’s celebrated soccer history. Consider that these Summer Olympics will be played on home soil, and one can comprehend Neymar’s decision to skip the Copa America in favor of the Olympics.
Yet, it would be disingenuous to say Brazil is throwing in the towel. With such a rich soccer culture to draw upon, even a weakened Brazilian team boasts more individual talent — from rising star Philippe Coutinho to veteran stalwart Dani Alves — than most other nations in the Copa America field.
Will Messi finally win a title with Argentina?
While Brazil isn’t bringing its best, it’s safe to say rival Argentina is in it to win it. After finishing as the runner-up at the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America last year, the Argentines will be craving a title — especially since Messi’s otherwise-sterling resume still is missing any sort of silverware on the international level.
This golden generation of Argentine talent goes well beyond Messi, who is rallying from a knock to his back and ribs suffered in a warm-up match. Although the back line is patchy, the attack — including Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain — is loaded with dangerous weapons. Anything short of Messi lifting the trophy June 26 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey will be a disappointment for Argentina.
Can Luis Suarez leave his mark?
Suarez could only watch as Uruguay limped to a disappointing quarterfinal exit in last year’s Copa America, with the controversial Barcelona star still serving his suspension for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.
He’ll need some help from his teammates if he wants to enjoy an international redemption this summer, with Suarez expected to sit out the group stage while recovering from a hamstring strain. After leading all of Europe with 59 goals for Barcelona this season, a healthy Suarez would make Uruguay an imposing force in the knockout round.
Is Mexico for real?
Mexico had fallen on rough times in recent years, nearly failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2014 and delivering a slew of subpar performances at last year’s Gold Cup. But El Tri rallied to ultimately win that Gold Cup, then defeated the U.S. in an October playoff to earn the region’s Confederations Cup berth. To boot, Mexico kicked off qualifying for the World Cup in 2018 with four consecutive wins.
With star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez coming off a 26-goal season for German club Bayer Leverkusen and new coach Juan Carlos Osorio pressing the right buttons, Mexico has the makings of a dark-horse contender.
Will Klinsmann get the U.S. back on track?
Klinsmann drew praise for successfully navigating the “Group of Death” at the World Cup, but much has gone awry for the U.S. coach since that run to the round of 16 in Brazil.
The Americans ended up fourth at the Gold Cup last summer — their worst finish since 2000 — and promptly lost to Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff. Even a soft World Cup qualifying group has proved difficult, with the U.S. suffering its first defeat to lowly Guatemala in March.
Klinsmann remains under contract through the next World Cup and only a truly disastrous run this summer will change his job status, but the pressure is on for a coach who thus far has failed to deliver on talk of a top-to-bottom cultural evolution for U.S. Soccer since taking over in 2011.
Wins over Ecuador and Bolivia in tune-up matches have instilled a self of confidence in the host nation, which has seen a new 4-3-3 formation pay dividends. If that uptick in form translates to competitive action, Klinsmann’s redemption might be around the corner.