SANTA CLARA, Calif. – On Monday night, fans in the United States finally got the Copa America Centenario spectacular they’d been watiting for.
After an opening weekend of lackluster games – punctuated by a fun, if somewhat rough-around-the-edges encounter between Mexico and Uruguay – Argentina and Chile delivered for the tournament.
A breakneck first half, played at incredible speed and precision, showed casual fans that the game can excite, even without the goals.
The precision of play from both teams was impeccable. Sure, there were a few stray passes, but that’s bound to happen when you play at the pace these two adversaries pushed for the entirety of the half.
Oh, and then there were the goals. Just over five minutes into the first half, Angel Di Maria tucked the ball away past Chile ‘keeper Claudio Bravo, letting loose in his celebration the kind of emotion only soccer can bring out, just hours after he learned that his grandmother had passed away earlier that day.
Soon after, Argentina had their second, and Chile truly opened up in search of an equalizer.
A spirited comeback by La Roja ultimately resulted in a goal that was too little, too late for the defending champions. But both teams’ efforts on the night showed us the true potential of what this Copa America can be, especially as it progresses to the knockout stages.
It took a few days to for the tournament to get going, but in a country that is exposed day in, day out to North American and European soccer, this game offered a glimpse of the best that’s on offer in parts further south. And as the number of teams remaining gets smaller, we’ll see even more games of this caliber.
It’s the same story in all major tournaments. The group stage of the World Cup is magnified by the occasion, but you’ll still get a few stale games from some of the also-rans. The Euros were great at 16 teams, but I’m not holding out too much hope for the quality of some of these group matches in the newly expanded, 24-team field this summer.
And as Copa America progresses to its knockout stages, teams like Argentina and Chile will remain. They will be joined by the likes of Mexico, Uruguay, Colombia, and Brazil. Even if some of those teams did not offer the same scintillating soccer in their first group games that was on display Monday night, they clearly have the quality to play at a high level.
The other twist here is that, once we do reach the knockout stages, there will be no extra time, save for the final. Instead, the matches will go straight to penalty kicks. And while no one likes to see a penalty shootout to decide these games, the hope is that the new rule will create more urgency to win these games in regular time and, hopefully, lead to more games like Monday's.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy, soccer fans – the best of this summer of soccer is yet to come. This was just the first taste.