NEW YORK – “Colombia is a tough opponent, but they were tough as well in the 1994 World Cup,” Alexi Lalas told reporters on Sunday night. “So I’ll leave it there.”
The former US national team defender was on hand as one of the draw assistants at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City for the Copa América Centenario Draw.
The event determined that the US will host Colombia, the highest FIFA-ranked team in Group A, on June 3 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. It will be the opening game of the centennial edition of the oldest international soccer competition in the world, and the first time the Copa America will be held outside of South America.
Lalas was part of the upstart 1994 FIFA World Cup team that famously beat Colombia 2-1 in Pasadena, California, propelling the USMNT's qualification to the Round of 16 of that tournament.
Back then, Colombia were one of the favorites to win the World Cup title, but the loss against the USA meant they were eliminated after just two games in the group stage. Meanwhile, the result ignited interest in the sport of soccer in the United States.
The rhetoric after Sunday's draw is slightly different than it may have been before that 1994 match.
“The US is a very tough team,” said José Pékerman, the Colombia national team head coach. “They have done very well in the World Cups they’ve played and we all know their weight in CONCACAF. In this Copa América, all of us are very even.
“We recognize and respect their level, but I have faith that, if Colombia is well and we recover the players that have lost their rhythm recently, we can do well against them.”
The game will mark the third match-up between the two nations in Copa América play, with Colombia winning both previous times in Uruguay 1995 (4-1) and Venezuela 2007 (1-0). The US have beaten Colombia only three times in 17 all-time matches, including friendlies.
“It’s a tough and even group, with very experienced teams, some of us going through a transition phase, but with a lot of history, great players and good coaches in common,” Pékerman said. “Above all, it will be tough to kick it off because the US will have a strong desire to play at home. It will surely be very emotional and I like the idea of playing that game, because there will be a lot of expectations around it."
But the tough task for the US doesn’t end with their first game. Four days after playing Colombia, Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad will move east and host the other CONCACAF opponent in the group, Costa Rica, at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
“We’ve played the US many times, and as recently as October when we beat them 1-0 in New Jersey,” said Costa Rica head coach Oscar Ramírez, whose team's confidence is high after the Ticos were the only CONCACAF nation to reach the quarterfinal stage in the 2014 World Cup. “We’re not scared anymore. What we did [in Brazil] gave our players enough experience and we’re ready to face another Group of Death."
Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia will host the close of the USA's participation in the group stage, when they face Paraguay. The South American team failed to qualify to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but they have finished in the top four of the last two editions of the Copa América, reaching the final in 2011.
It will be the first game between the two nations since a 1-0 victory for Paraguay in a friendly match played in Nashville in 2011.
“There are two teams we haven’t faced yet, the US and Colombia,” said Ramón Díaz, who became the Paraguay national team head coach in 2014. “We’ll prepare ourselves the best way possible to do things well, because it’s never an easy task to play against the home team.”
Among the other draw assistants Sunday night was MLS legend Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, who captained the 1994 Colombian national team and remembers well the 2-1 World Cup loss against the US. The former MLS MVP is catiously awaiting the rematch, but he chose to deflect the attention away from his home nation.
“It brings memories of that  game, the fans and the atmosphere,” Valderrama said. “But this time, Colombia is not the the favorite. The favorite is the team playing at home and they will play against us. We’re going to kick it off well.”