NEW YORK – The US national team learned its Copa América Centenario group stage opponents at the historic tournament's draw on Sunday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, and for many fans, the most daunting challenge in what some are calling a “Group of Death” is Colombia.
The USMNT will open the Copa América with a clash vs. Los Cafeteros on June 3 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Curiously enough, both nations have shared a few links in past years.
MLS has had a significant share of Colombian players both past and present, some of whom have also provided José Pékerman’s squad with options of its own. Carlos Valdés played in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and he returned to the international stage after a successful campaign with the Philadelphia Union in the 2012 MLS season, which included an MLS All-Star nod.
As recently as October, Pékerman and his staff called up FC Dallas winger Fabián Castillo, who played in the first two games of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers, against Peru and Uruguay. Pékerman is currently spearheading a generational shift within the Colombia national team, and MLS might provide a few players for that process.
“We follow players from every competitive league, as long as they have certain continuity and good level,” said Néstor Lorenzo, Pékerman’s first assistant, after Sunday's Copa América draw. “To be part of the national team, the players need to continuously be playing at a competitive level, like they do here and other leagues.”
Next month the Under-23 teams of Colombia and the US will meet in a two-legged playoff series to determine which team qualifies for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Orlando City SC midfielder Cristian Higuita was recently called up by Colombia U-23s head coach Carlos “Piscis” Restrepo in the buildup to that series; Higuita’s Orlando teammate Carlos Rivas was also part of the list, but had to decline due to injury.
“We’re still following Fabián [Castillo] and all the other guys that play here in MLS. When it’s time to send the call-up list, we evaluate many situations; their present, roster spot, needs we have and the tactical system we’ll use,” added Lorenzo. “But, definitely, we’re following them closely.”
Lorenzo, Pékerman’s right hand for more than a decade, revealed that the senior national team would feed off the Olympic one sooner than expected.
“We’re in constant communication with ‘Piscis’ and of course the senior team is the priority,” Lorenzo said. “We’ll focus on what the senior national team need first, and then on the Olympic one. But we’re looking forward to Colombia making the Olympic games, because all of those guys have a lot of talent that will benefit us.”
Looking at the senior squad, Pékerman spoke about the future of injury-plagued Chelsea striker Radamel Falcao and recent reports linking him to 2015 MLS Cup finalists Columbus Crew SC.
“I talk to him, but always with the expectations and desire for a healthy recovery, that’s the most important thing. If he’s not well, it would be very difficult for him to recover his competitive level,” said Pékerman. “We have many players who need to recover their playing time, and we need to focus on the generational shift that Colombia needs, and hopefully Falcao can be part of that.”
According to a report from AS USA last week, Falcao is willing to evaluate Crew SC’s rumored offer ahead of the one presented to him from Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning, even if it’s of a lesser monetary value. Falcao is currently his national team's all-time leading goalscorer, and if it comes down to a decision between MLS and China, the decision may hinge on Pékerman’s judgments about the Chinese league.
“Each one is free to choose what they want for their future, but for the national team it’s an inconvenience [to play in China] because of the long distances of travel,” Pékerman said. “Not because of their quality, because they can train and compete well anywhere they are, but because trips will be longer and they’d have less days to recover. It’s a difficulty.”
Lorenzo echoed Pékerman’s sentiment about a prompt recovery for Falcao.
“I didn’t know about Columbus’ interest, but a lot of teams want Falcao, and hopefully he starts playing again soon,” commented Lorenzo. “He’s soon to recover from his latest injury and might come back with Chelsea any time. But wherever it is, it’s important that he gains his confidence and playing time back.”