The Copa América Centenario, a special edition of the South American tournament, this time expanded in size and hosted by the United States, begins this week. Here's an introduction to the teams involved
Last year, hosts Chile won the Copa América, the premier football tournament for South America (CONMEBOL), which is supposed to be held every four years. However, to celebrate one hundred years, the federation decided to host a special expanded Centenario, held for the first time outside of South America in the United States, to ensure as wide an auidence as possible. In addition to the Yanqui hosts, the tournament, typically made up of the ten CONMEBOL nations of South America and two guests, has been expanded to sixteen; the ten usual suspects, along with North American "powerhouses" Mexico and the United States, along with Central American Cup champions Costa Rica, Carribbean Cup champions Jamaia, and qualifiers Haiti and Panama.
While hosting a Copa América the same year as the UEFA European Championship on foreign soil remains a curious one, it appears everyone involved is taking it seriously, with the group stage especially promising more drama than its old world counterpart. For a full squad list check out ESPN. Here is a brief overview to the teams involved in Groups A and B, which unfortunately include no current Fiorentina players:
United States: The hosts, coached by the increasingly embattled Jürgen Klinsmann, have been a source of fustration for American soccer fans, with uneven development hampering a hyped younger generation and inconsistent results even at the senior level. It won't help that they drew perhaps the most balanced group of the tournament. They bring a combination of MLS and Europe (England in particular) based talent that will hope for a home advantage.
The Americans, as always, have strong goalkeeping, with Brad Guzan of recently relegated Aston Villa taking over from longtime veteran, now number 2, Tim Howard. Beyond that, the team has a size and speed advantage to counteract the skill deficit made worse by the retirement of long time icon Landon Donovan. Along with Guzan, their key player is capitan Michael Bradley, the box to box midfielder who played for Roma before returning to North America to collect paychecks alongside Italy's very own Sebastian Giovinco on Toronto FC. Other veterans expected to carry the Americans include Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. It is unlikely that the United States will advance, however if the fans show up anything is possible.
Colombia: One of the most exciting teams in the world since José Pékerman took over in 2012, Colombia was competitive but failed to win anything in the 2014 and 2015 World Cup and Copa América respectively, and with most of their team in the prime of their careers, this is an excellent opportunity for Los Cafeteros to upset the question filled superpowers of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and are favourites for Group A.
Colombia is a well rounded team with a lot of flair. Keeper David Ospina is above average, their backline lacks high end talent but has depth that is used to playing together. Their midfield includes their two best players, star James Rodríguez who has something to prove after falling out of favor at Real Madrid, alongside Fiorentina veteran now at a certain other club Juan Guillermo Cuadrado. Up front is Milan's Carlos Bacca, however after that they may struggle to score goals, as their forward depth imploded since 2014, with Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martínez, Luis Muriel, and Teófilo Gutiérrez not even making the squad following torrid seasons.
Costa Rica: Los Ticos are experience perhaps their greatest moment in history - in 2014, they topped possibly the strongest World Cup group, defeating Uruguay and Italy and made it to the quarter finals where they lost to the Netherlands only on penalties. Now they have a squad full of European experience; however the absence of Real Madrid's Keylor Navas, one of the finest goalkeepers in the world, puts a significant damper on their chances to make some more upsets; nevertheless this is a team that has gone undefeated in recent World Cup qualifying, including a big win over the United States last year.
Under coach Óscar Ramírez, Costa Rica has continued their underdog philosophy, which is not always fun to watch but has proven to be effective. Their success depends on the opportunistic pace of forwards Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, who will need to take advantage of whatever counters can be created from fullback play and the industrial midfield pivot of Yeltsin Tejeda and Celso Borges.
Paraguay: Since River Plate (and Fiorentina) legend Ramón Díaz took over coaching duties, Paraguay has regained some of the confidence lost during a miserable spell following the resignation of Geraldo Martino (more on him later); they failed to qualify for the World Cup in neighboring Brazil, finishing at the bottom of the qualifying tables, but under Díaz they rebounded with a respectable Copa América performance, defeating Brazil on penalties only to get destroyed by Argentina in the semi-finals.
Paraguay remains a counter attacking team that is known more for their teamwork and structure than individual talent, although they take more risks under Díaz than they have in the past. Their mostly South American based team includes veterans Justo Villar, Paulo da Silva, and Nelson Haedo Valdez, alongside an influx of young, pacey players including midfielder Óscar Romero and forwards Derlis González and Dario Lezcano, two of the few European based players included. Their wild card is Juan Iturbe, who finally committed to Paraguay this year after flipping between the Paraguay and Argentine youth setups, and if he can find his form Paraguay will have the attacking edge they traditionally lack. They will have to overcome the absence of midfield mainstay Néstor Ortigoza, who misses the tournament with an injury.
Brazil: The Seleção are group favourites as always, but enter this tournament more low key than usual - they will be without their superstar Neymar, forcing them to rely more on depth than individual flair, an approach that if anything is favoured by their cautious coach, the polarizing Dunga (another Fiorentina alumni).
Their backline includes two way talent like Felipe Luís, Dani Alves, Miranda, and Marquinhos. Without Neymar, their strength is their midfield, including creators such as Premier League stars Willian and Philippe Coutinho, who will be supporting erratic but talented forwards such as Hulk and Jonas. With Douglas Costa out injured, Dunga has dug up the corpse of legend Kaká, now of Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer, who will be looking to find his vintage form if Brazil hopes to stand out.
Although Brazil hasn't lived up to their Joga Bonito reputation in decades, this Brazilian squad may be even more blue collar than usual, and will have to fully commit to Dunga's philosophy, as he is one of many coaches on their last chances in this tournament.
Ecuador: Currently ranked 12 in the world, Ecuador look to get out of Group B, if not upset Brazil, under the watch of Argentine-Bolivian manager Gustavo Quinteros. The most direct side in South America, La Tricolor remains mediocre at keeping possession but otherwise balanaced, with a veteran heavy defense and talent up front.
Forward Enner Valencia was their best player in both the World Cup and Copa América, and will likely continue to be so with a bit of Premier League experience. The other Valencia, Manchester United's Antonio Valencia, no longer has the pace he once did and will likely play as a full back, expected to start counters. Winger Jefferson Montero and enganche Miler Bolaños will also be expected to create the bulk of Ecuador's chances.
Haiti: The 71th ranked team in the world, Haiti are one of the tournament's minnows. French coach and international specialist Patrice Neveu will celebrate any points he can get from a group Les Grenadiers are unlikely to get out of. Reims goalkeeper and captain Johnny Placide will be looking to create an upset; if Haiti has an advantage it is that a significant number of their players are already based in the United States, and they can expect passionate support fom expat fans.
Peru: Although missing out on their most important veterans, including ex-Viola Juan Manuel Vargas and captain Claudio Pizarro, La Blanquirroja believes they can cause an upset by bringing a squad full of domestic talent eager to impress. One of the weaker South American sides, Peru has nevertheless had some notable recent results, and enters the tournament after a few strong friendly games, with seven different goalscorers in two games.
Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca, a decorated veteran of both the Peruvian and Argentine leagues, has given Peru new life. They came in an unexpected third place in 2015 and while the loss of their veteran core will hurt, their attack includes standouts from last year Paolo Guerrero and Christian Cueva.
Groups C and D will be covered in Part 2.