The Copa América Centenario, born in scandal and saved only by the promise of better behavior (and the presence of some pretty good soccer teams), kicks off Friday night when the United States faces Colombia in Santa Clara, Calif. The 16-team event is being played outside South America for the first time as a celebration of its 100th anniversary, and while a handful of top players have been left out or ruled out by injury, there is plenty left in the cupboard, including four of the eight quarterfinalists from the last World Cup. Here’s what you need to know before the tournament begins.
Who’s in the field?
The Copa América is South America’s continental championship, and as it celebrates its centenary, it is the oldest international soccer tournament in the world. As the continental championship, it always includes the 10 members of the South American confederation, Conmebol: traditional soccer powers like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Chile and the (relatively) less-accomplished sides Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. But since 1993, the event has also invited guest teams from outside South America: Mexico (nine appearances) has finished second twice, and the United States (three appearances) was fourth in 1995.
This year’s event has 16 teams. In addition to the 10 countries from South America, the guests are the United States and Mexico, as well as four nations that earned their spots through regional qualifying: Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama and Haiti.
How do I watch?
Fox Sports will televise every game live in the United States on its family of networks (Fox, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and FX). Prefer your broadcasts in Spanish? Univision and UniMas will have every game as well. But remember that meaty pregame shows have become the norm, so if you just want straight soccer, make sure you pay attention to the kickoff time, not just the broadcast time.
How does it work?
The tournament is made up of four groups of four teams. Everyone plays three group-stage games, and the top two teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals, where the Copa becomes a straight knockout tournament. Friday’s kickoff match — the United States vs. Colombia — is the only game on the first day. Brazil opens Saturday (against Ecuador), and then Mexico-Uruguay (Sunday) and Argentina-Chile (Monday) should spice things up nicely. The final is June 26 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Wait. Did you mention a scandal?
The United States Justice Department nearly put an end to the Copa América Centenario before it was played. The tournament figured prominently in the arrests of dozens of soccer officials and television executives last year, and at times it seemed it was created less as a soccer celebration than as a way for television and marketing companies to funnel bribes to soccer officials in the Americas. Those accusations and the various business agreements underlying the event nearly led the United States to withdraw as the host country last fall, but assurances were made and uncomfortable contracts were torn up, and the event will go ahead.
Still, even though the trophy avoided spending the summer in an evidence locker, notoriety and the specter of arrest still hang over the Copa, and the continuing Justice Department investigation could produce a few sleepless nights for visiting officials. Thirteen of the 16 countries in the field have had a citizen arrested as part of the FIFA case, and now there’s even some last-minute drama: On Tuesday, the Argentine Football Association was threatening to pull out in a dispute with its government about control of the federation’s presidency.
Who are the favorites?
Argentina, with or without a healthy Lionel Messi, has one of the deepest teams in the field. La Albiceleste, as the team is known, is also hungry: Argentina has not won a senior trophy since the 1993 Copa América, and with all that talent at some point it has to pick one up even if it is by accident, right? Maybe not. Chile won the Copa América last year as the host country, but lately it is trying to find its way after the abrupt departure of its feisty coach, Jorge Sampaoli, in January after a dispute with the national federation. Chile has since lost to Argentina (in World Cup qualifying) and to Jamaica (in a friendly), two results that — in their own way — hint at trouble.
Uruguay, with a respected coach in Óscar Tabárez and talent up front (Edinson Cavani) and in the back (Diego Godín), might be a safer bet. It has won a record 15 Copa titles. Brazil? Even Brazilians aren’t sure of what to expect from a team that probably realizes the country would rather win its first Olympic gold than the Copa.
The United States is the official home team, and it should benefit from big crowds and its Major League Soccer-based players being in midseason form rather than worn out from the long European season.
But a better Concacaf pick might be Mexico. The Mexicans are unbeaten in 18 matches and 6-0 under their new coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, who has yet to see his team allow a goal. And El Tri can boast a home-field edge that might surpass even the Americans’: Mexico played 14 games in the United States last year (more than even the United States national team, which hosted the Gold Cup and still had only 12), and it already has added three more in 2016. In addition, Mexico will play its group-stage games in the fan-friendly (and relatively neighborly) cities of Glendale, Ariz.; Pasadena, Calif.; and Houston.
Wait a minute, where’s …?
Neymar? Brazil left him off the roster because it would rather have him for the Rio Olympics. Luis Suárez? He injured his hamstring helping Barcelona win the Copa del Rey final in May, and while he’s trying to project positivity, he probably won’t play until the knockout rounds, if at all. Jozy Altidore? The American striker is out six to eight weeks with his own hamstring problem. Keylor Navas? Costa Rica’s goalkeeper, who helped Real Madrid win the UEFA Champions League title on Saturday, was replaced with a lingering foot injury that didn’t seem to affect his club play much this season. Messi? He hurt his back and had to be subbed off in an exhibition match last week, but Argentina still hopes to have him available — once he returns from a quick trip to Spain this week for his tax-fraud trial.
Is there anyone left?
Don’t panic. Chile’s still bringing Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez and Bayern Munich’s Arturo Vidal. Argentina can supplement Messi with Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero and Javier Pastore. Mexico has Javier Hernández, who is coming off a great year in Germany. Brazil’s Philippe Coutinho can do remarkable things — but only if he gets to play. Colombia midfielder Juan Cuadrado sometimes has the look of a true star, and his teammate James Rodríguez is a proven one — as long as he can shake off two years of rust acquired on the Real Madrid bench.
And a glass-half-full fan or coach might even see opportunity in the injuries. When Brazil announced that Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa was to miss the tournament, it opened the door for Kaká to return to the Seleção. (Scratch that: Kaká withdrew this week after he too was injured.) And the result of Altidore’s injury so far has seemed to be that Jurgen Klinsmann will be forced into giving more minutes up front to young players like the Bundesliga striker Bobby Wood and the Borussia Dortmund teenager Christian Pulisic.
What are they saying?
■ “Argentina has not raised a major senior trophy of any kind since 1993, and I think it’s important that we end the streak.” — Lionel Messi, in Sports Illustrated, on what would qualify as success for his country.
■ “Hopefully, Brazil can get back to winning here.” — The under-fire Brazil coach Dunga, who won a World Cup in the Rose Bowl in 1994 but may not keep his job if his team flounders in America in June.
■ “We want to get to the final four. This is our goal.” — United States Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, setting a semifinal berth as the bar for success for his team in the Copa América Centenario, which he called a tougher tournament than this summer’s “diluted” European Championships.
Is travel the X-factor?
The United States is a big place, and while the tournament is being contested in 10 cities, there are no regional groupings to limit travel fatigue for players. That means top players who have spent the past eight months running around Europe, and back and forth to the Americas for international games, now face thousands of miles more in air travel.