On Friday, the Copa America Centenario begins. It's literally a once-in-a-century event, a tournament commemorating the first edition of the Copa America, the championship of South America (or "CONMEBOL", the unwieldy acronym by which the confederation is known).
Copa America has, through its history, proven a more slapdash and haphazard tournament than the World Cup or European Championship, which are held every four years. In the past, the Copa has been held every two years, or every three years. Occasionally the gaps have been longer, stretching six years back in the 1930s, and eight years without a Copa from 1967 through 1975.
Starting in 2007, however, the powers that be at CONMEBOL decided to standardize and hold the tournament every four years during the summer following the World Cup. In 2007 Brazil won it, and then in 2011 it was Uruguay, followed by Chile--for the first time ever--in 2015.
That makes this summer's tournament a special, one-off event. It's the first time the tournament's been held outside of South America, and it's been inserted into the middle of that four-year gap. (The next Copa is scheduled for 2019, not 2020).
It's a pretty big deal. Not as big as the World Cup, but bigger than any other tournament the US will play in for a long, long time.
Brazil, Argentina and Mexico are the favorites
Brazil are in a down cycle by their own standards, historically speaking. They took perhaps the most famous beating in soccer history two summers ago in the semifinals of the World Cup, losing by 7-1 to the eventually victorious Germans. They'll also be without their best player, the lightning-quick and skillful winger Neymar, who has helped Barcelona to two La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey titles and a UEFA Champions League title in his three seasons. He also has 46 goals in 70 appearances for la Seleçao, all at the tender age of 24.
He's really good, and the fact that we're talking about him, instead of the guys who did make the cut, highlights Brazil's attacking issues. They have a weaker squad than the team that disappointed by crashing out in the quarterfinals of last summer's Copa.
Nonetheless, they're still Brazil. And the last time an unfancied Brazil team came to the US for a major tournament, in 1994 for the World Cup, they walked away as champions.
A year before that Brazilian World Cup crown, Argentina won the Copa America behind the goal-scoring prowess of the brilliant striker Gabriel Batistuta. Given the wealth of talent that's worn the Albiceleste over the last 23 years, it's almost impossible to believe that's their most recent major tournament victory, but it is.
It's not that Argentina haven't come close. They were runners-up in the Copa in 2004, 2007, and 2015, and runners-up at the 2014 World Cup as well. Those three most recent tournaments have featured the almost indescribably great Lionel Messi, the man many (including yours truly) consider to be the greatest ever to play the game. In my mind, his exploits at the club level with Barcelona leave little room for argument.
But because Argentina have so often been the bridesmaid in the Messi era, he is not beloved by his countrymen in the way that Diego Maradona or Mario Kempes are. He needs either a Copa America crown (which Maradona never won) or a World Cup crown (which he did, famously) in order to seal his legacy. Given the wealth of talent and experience in this Argentina side, and the fact that they made the finals last year, and the year before, perhaps third time's the charm?
Or perhaps it's time for Mexico to step up and compete with the big boys. El Tri have been almost comically consistent over the last 20 years, always making the knock-out rounds of the World Cup but never advancing beyond that. They've also had their fair share of success in the Copa America as invited guests, finishing second twice (1993 and 2001) and third place three times (1997, 1999, 2007). Add in a Confederations Cup title in 1999, and an Olympic title in 2012, and it's hard to argue against Mexico's place on the edges of the world's elite.
There was, of course, a blip in 2013, when a bad stretch in World Cup qualifying was compounded by the FMF's scorched-earth policy toward managerial hiring, and Mexico almost failed to qualify for the Brazil 2014. But they made it on the last day (thanks to the US), and once they got there they performed well, as they always do. And then they lost dramatically in the Round of 16, as they always do.
Now, however, those Olympic gold medalists are in their athletic prime, there's been a period of relative managerial stability since the hire of former New York Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio. And in Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez they have the most in-form striker in the tournament. The "Little Pea" scored 26 goals in 40 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen this year, and has 44 in 82 appearances with El Tri. He's also surrounded by quick and crafty wingers; a solid, no-frills midfield; and a defense that's balanced and experienced.
If there's one worry, it's that the heart of that defense is a little too experienced. Rafa Marquez is 37 years old and has been the goat in two of Mexico's round of 16 flame-outs, against the US in 2002 and then in 2014 against the Netherlands. If he's pulled out of his comfort zone and forced to run, Mexico's margin for error shrinks significantly.
The other three teams pushing into the "possible favorites" realm would be Uruguay--in spite of Luis Suarez's injury--Chile and Colombia, who the US face on Friday night (9:30 pm ET; FS1).
How can the US possibly compete against that?
The same way we have for the last 25 years! I'll get into the specifics of this current US team in the next section, but right now it's time for a little history, because far too many casual US fans think that the US are a minnow on the world stage, not capable of competing against the very best in any significant competition.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1994 at the World Cup, the US beat Colombia 2-1. Yes, they were helped by an own goal, and yes, Tony Meola had a big game in net. But Alexi Lalas also had a goal incorrectly whistled offside, and on the day, the US were the better team. That's why they won.
The following year, the US were one of the invitees to the 1995 Copa America and were drawn into the same group as Chile (win) and Bolivia (loss). The heavyweights in the group? Batistuta and the then two-time defending champions Argentina. They were prohibitive favorites, but a US victory would mean the Yanks topped the group and secured a more favorable draw in the quarterfinals.
The US didn't just win: They stomped Argentina into dust, dominating the champs to the tune of 3-0. They then went on to beat Mexico in the quarterfinals before falling 1-0 to Brazil in the semifinals.
That was one of many one-goal losses to Brazil over the past quarter century. The most famous is either Brazil's 1-0 win in the 1994 World Cup round of 16, or the dramatic, thrilling, heartbreaking 3-2 loss in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. There was also the group stage of the 1999 Confederations Cup, which produced another close, hard-fought 1-0 win for Brazil.
And it's not just South American teams against which the US have had success. In that 2009 Confeds Cup run, the US beat Spain--who were, at the time, on a 37-game unbeaten streak--2-0 in the semifinals. Ten years earlier, they'd eliminated Germany in the group stage of the Confederations Cup with a similar 2-0 win. There was also a dramatic 3-2 win over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup, and a 3-0 hammering of (a very good) Egypt in the 2009 Confeds Cup, a 2-1 win over Ghana in 2014, and World Cup draws against the likes of Italy, England, and Portugal.
All of that is added to the pile of dramatic wins vs. Mexico over the years. The best-remembered--please, let them never forget--came in the round of 16 in the 2002 World Cup. But there have been many, many more over the last 25 years, including Gold Cups and World Cup qualifying, and especially at home. For a long, long time, the United States was a fortress where Mexico simply weren't able to get a result off the US's best XI.
Even if the argument is that the World Cup is the only true measure of greatness, US naysayers have to contend with this:
YESSSS!!!!!!! I AM HYPE!!!!!!!!!!!! USA!! USA!!! USA!!!!!!!
Yeah, read the subtext of Alexi's tweet first. Because there's been so much instability in terms of roster and lineup choices, it's debatable as to whether or not the US really are a team. And while the talent on the roster is probably top six or seven in this tournament, talent alone is never enough.
Want an example? Look at what happened to Mexico back in 2013 World Cup qualifying, that "blip" I talked about. That team, which was the most talented in the region, crumbled from the inside out to an almost fatal extent. Think it can't happen elsewhere? Then try to put money on the Dutch to win this summer's Euros.
Talent alone is never enough, even for Brazil or Argentina. There has to be process and consistency with it. And that's the big question for the US...
Jurgen Klinsmann, in blue, emotionally prepares the US fanbase for the announcement of his starting XI vs. Colombia.
Simply put: Nobody knows if Klinsmann will stay with what's worked. In the World Cup he played Dempsey, a second striker or a winger, at center forward. He played Michael Bradley, a defensive midfielder or a box-to-box midfielder, as a trequartista. He played DeAndre Yedlin, a fullback, on the wing. He played Fabian Johnson, a winger, at fullback. He played Geoff Cameron, a central defender, at defensive midfield in the knock-out round against Belgium. And at the same time he sat his starting defensive midfielder--Kyle Beckerman--who had been, to that point, the best field player for the US.
In the first four US qualifiers, he's started four different lineups with three different formations. Over the last three years Cameron and John Brooks have started exactly two games together. Johnson still looks set to start at left back despite his defensive troubles, and Wood will, for some reason, probably start on the wing. Plus Bradley might play as a d-mid, or he might not.
That's a whole mess of questions to have heading into a major tournament, and Klinsmann's ways are both opaque and inscrutable. Anyone who claims to know what he's going to do when the games begin is fooling themselves, and trying to fool others.
Despite all of that, the pieces are in place for this next month to be a triumph for the US, and for Klinsmann. The talent is there, and the experience is there, and the joyful naivete of youth is there, and the blueprint--the 4-3-3 with Bradley at d-mid, Cameron and Brooks in central defense, and a handful of attacking difference-makers scattered around them--is there.
He doesn't have to be a tactical mastermind to make it all work. He just has to put the right players in the right spots, and let them do their thing.
If he does that, the US will compete like hell, trading blow-for-blow with anybody they come up against. Just as they have done for more than a quarter century.