Thursday, May 19, 2016
Copa America Centario Preview (Part One)
Starting on June 3rd, a unique soccer tournament will take place to mark the 100th anniversary of the Copa America, South America's premier continental tournament. It's the Copa America Centenario, and not only will North American teams take place, but the tournament will take place in the US. In this two-part series, I will preview the four groups that will play in the tournament. This week, it's Group A and Group B. If you miss the tourney, don't worry: there should be another one just like it in 100 years.
Only one group features three countries in the top 30 FIFA rankings, and of course that group includes the U.S., who seems great at drawing the Group of Death in intercontinental competitions lately.
When that happened in the 2014 World Cup, the Yanks made it out of the group over favored Portugal and 2010 quarterfinalist (and consistent thorn in the USMNT side) Ghana, so they can do it again. Theoretically, anyway.
It was a good World Cup for the U.S., but their form has been poor since then (and just as typically when either Mexico or the U.S. rises, the other falls), limping out of last year's Gold Cup in the semifinals to Panama. For the first time, Jurgen Klinsmann's job security has been called into question.
He's probably safe if he makes it out of group A, but with Colombia and Costa Rica in the group, it won't be easy. The match against Costa Rica in particular will be, in Donald Trump's words, yuuuuuge. They are ranked 25th to the U.S.'s 29th, and Costa Rica advanced further than the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup. If they beat the Americans, they will be solidified as the second-best footballing nation in North America behind Mexico, and Klinsmann will likely be out the door. They have four victories and a draw in their last six matches, but no marquee wins in just about a year, when they beat Germany and the Netherlands back-to-back.
One of the things about the World Cup that I love is that it's always an out-of-nowhere coming-out party for someone. In 2014, that someone was James Rodriguez of Columbia, who won the Golden Boot during Columbia's surprising quarterfinal run. That took him from mid-table French League play to Real Madrid.
Since then, Colombia has kept up the good work and are ranked 4th in the world. They stumbled a little bit last year but are coming off of victories over Ecuador and Bolivia in 2018 World Cup qualifying, and will have an excellent chance to head into the tourney on a three-match win streak if they can get by Haiti in Miami on May 28.
If Colombia making the 2014 quarterfinals in 2014 was a surprise, then Costa Rica doing the same thing was a shocker. They went undefeated in a very tough group that included England, Italy, and Uruguay, beat Greece in a penalty shootout in the round of 16, and lost in a penalty shootout to the Dutch to send them home.
They followed that up with a brutal 10-match winless streak, and although things are looking up now, going 5-1-1 in their last seven, they have the same problem as the U.S. in that none of those wins came against impressive opponents (except perhaps for over the U.S. itself).
La Albirroja enjoyed qualifying for four straight World Cups between 1998 and 2010, and particularlyhad a great run where they made the World Cup quarterfinals in 2010 and the Copa America finals in 2011. Since then, however, they have sunk like a stone. They finished dead last in South American qualifying in 2014, and although they rebounded to make the 2015 Copa America semifinals, they are still the lowest-ranked squad in this group.
Furthermore, they have won just three of their last 16 matches, and Paulo da Silva and Roque Santa Cruz are in the twilights of their careers. It will be very surprising if they make it out of the group.
What can you say about Brazil? While they sometimes falter (and indeed, they are off to a slow start in 2018 World Cup qualifying), they are still, decade by decade, the most dominant soccer country in the world, and the grouping Gods looked down upon them very kindly for this tournament.
The only hope the other nations have, besides Brazil's iffy current form (a win and the draws in their last four) is that Neymar won't be playing in this tournament, focusing on the Olympics instead. But guys like Hulk and Casamiro will still be there, and I don't see a way for them to not finish in the top two of their group.
The other respectable squad in Group B, the Ecuadorians, finished 2015 on fire, winning their last six (they have a loss and a draw so far in 2016), including over Argentina and Mexico. That has them 12th in the FIFA rankings, and with Manchester United's Antonio Valencia and West Ham's Enner Valencia (no relation) on the squad, Ecuador's stock is rising.
Los Amarillos will prep for the Copa America Centenario with a friendly against the United States and an "unofficial friendly" against the LA Galaxy.
Since 1986, there have been eight World Cups. The six teams already previewed, between them, have played in 31 World Cups out of a possible 48 in that time, with every nation being in at least 3 of those 8. The last two teams in Group B have been to zero of the last eight, and today are still ranked below the aforementioned six squads.
First up is Peru, who boast just two players playing top-flight European soccer on their Copa America Centario roster. Typically the dregs of South American soccer along with Bolivia and Venezuela, the best thing I can say about them is that they currently hold a three-game winning streak over Paraguay, so perhaps they are not the worst South American squad in these two groups..
Without a doubt, Haiti is the best Francophone squad in this tournament. And hey — they are ranked higher, at 71, then Venezuela and Bolivia, who we will discuss in our next installment of this series.
More than France (10) and Haiti itself (8), a plurality of players on the Haitian national team ply their trade in the US (11). But of those 11, only two play in the MLS; the rest are a division below or lower.
It will be a shock if Haiti can get any points off of anyone except Peru, but I'll be cheering hard for them as one of the poorest countries on Earth. They could use some good news. Besides, how can you not root for a country that has players named Judelin Aveska, Duckens Nazon, and Woodensky Cherenfant?