Deathly? Copa America Group A Preview

Deathly? Copa America Group A Preview

We begin our Copa America Centenario Preview here at Soccer Nation with Group A, where the tournament kicks off on June 3rd. Whether or not you label it as the “Group of Death”, there is no question that the foursome of Colombia, the United States, Paraguay, and Costa Rica is as deep and challenging as any in the competition.

Nate Abaurrea and Cesar Hernandez take you through this one, spotlighting the best storylines, players, and wildcards, providing their expert opinions as to who will reign supreme and make it to the knockout stage.

United States

Manager: Jurgen Klinsmann

Schedule: June 3rd vs. Colombia @ Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
June 7th vs. Costa Rica @ Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
June 11th vs. Paraguay @ Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA

As hosts of this special edition Copa America, the United States Men’s National Team was hopeful, to say the least, about the prospects of on field success in the tournament. Then came the group draw. The U.S. went from heavyweight to underdog in an instant, with one of the world’s best sides, Colombia waiting for them in Santa Clara to open the summer extravaganza on Friday, June 3rd , and two strong opponents in Costa Rica and Paraguay following suit.

Some people like it this way. Many former players, current pundits, and even current coaches relish the idea of the U.S. being a “dark horse” in international competition, putting a unique brand of psychological pressure on the opposition. However you want to look at it, one thing is for certain. It is going to be a monumental struggle for the U.S. to make it out of this thing, and into the quarter-finals, even with what is expected to be a strong home-field advantage for all three matches.

Not only is the group daunting, but the U.S. will also log more travel miles in the group stage than any other team in the Copa America.

Some advantage it is being the host.

U.S. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann is not exactly in a position of wealth when it comes to his roster for the Copa. The core of the team will be similar to what it’s been in the last year of mixed performances, but there are some intriguing young players to watch for.

Christian Pulisic, the creative and audacious Borussia Dortmund midfielder, made his senior debut in a World Cup Qualifier against Guatemala in late March, after months of speculation over whether his international future would be in an American or Croatian shirt. He has had an exceptional season for Dortmund’s senior team while also suiting up for their U-19’s. While the American staff is conscious of not putting too much pressure on the teenage sensation, he could be a major weapon on a team desperate for attacking options.

Deandre Yedlin just finished a stellar season in the Premier League, where he was instrumental as a right-back in helping Sunderland avoid relegation. How his recent performances in the British spring will translate to the American summer remains to be seen. Since his electrifying performance against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, Yedlin has yet to fully blossom on the international stage. Look for the Copa to be his coming out party, both as a defender and an attacking threat, as he rides a strong wave of personal momentum into the competition.

With Jozy Altidore now out of the tournament due to a hamstring injury, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes, and the elder statesman Clint Dempsey (now 33 years of age) will be vying for spots up top. Look for Wood to claim one of those spots. The 23 year-old Hawaiian burst on the international scene last summer with winning goals in friendlies against Holland and Germany, and just finished off a club season in Germany that saw him score 17 goals in 31 matches for Bundesliga 2 side Union Berlin, landing him a major transfer to the top flight with Hamburg. He has proven to be a weapon for Jurgen Klinsmann when coming off the bench, but going by current form, there’s no reason he couldn’t start in at least two of these group matches.

The goalkeeper situation for Team USA is an interesting discussion. Will Klinsmann go with Brad Guzan, who just finished off one of the worst team seasons in modern English history with Aston Villa, or Tim Howard, a legend no doubt, but a man who fell out of favor at Everton and will be coming back to Major League Soccer and the Colorado Rapids later this summer? Will there be a platoon act? Will it matter?

We will refrain from calling it an “accomplishment” in an attempt to keep American diehards from cringing, but this U.S. side making it out of Group A would still be impressive. It would be a shocker if they were to get anything out of the match with James Rodriguez and the Colombians, and it will take solid team performances to get past Costa Rica and Paraguay.

U.S. Soccer has pretty much made it clear that Jurgen Klinsmann will be in charge through 2018, regardless of the results in this tournament. So what do they really have to lose? We’ll find out real soon.

Colombia

Manager: Jose Pekerman

Schedule: June 3rd vs USA @ Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
June 7th vs Paraguay @ Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
June 11th vs Costa Rica @ NRG Stadium, Houston, TX

In this so-called “group of death,” Colombia emerges as the favorite to dominate the first round of the tournament. Even without the out-of-form Radamel Falcao, Los Cafeteros still boast world-class talents like James Rodriguez, Carlos Bacca, and Juan Cuadrado.

Manager Jose Pekerman will undoubtedly have plenty of pressure to find immediate success and will likely need a good showing to in the tournament to distract many from the mixed results he has attained in World Cup qualifying. Although Los Cafeteros secured victories in their two most recent matches against Bolivia and Ecuador, the points gained were just enough to push the national team to the fifth spot in CONMEBOL’s qualifying competition.

Perhaps a certain name from La Liga might be able to help.

Rodriguez is the clear star of the team and current symbol for the national side. It’s hard not to run into an image or two of his when looking at promotions or ads for next month’s competition. Although the 24-year-old couldn’t solidify a regular starting role for Real Madrid this season, the midfielder will still undoubtedly be a focal point in the attack.

Looking elsewhere, it’s hard to ignore Bacca. The striker amassed 18 goals and two assists for AC Milan during the 2015-2016 Serie A season. Bacca is an excellent finisher and will be sure to appear on a few highlight reels from the Copa America.

Let’s also not forget Edwin Cardona. The 23-year-old midfielder is a rising star in the Liga MX with Monterrey and will be sure to grab plenty of attention with his powerful shots from distance.

Despite the tough group matches against the United States, Costa Rica, and Paraguay, there is no reason why Pekerman and company shouldn’t secure a spot in the knockout stage. Man-for-man, Los Cafeteros are the best in their group.

 

Costa Rica

Manager: Oscar Ramirez

Schedule:  June 4th vs. Paraguay @ Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
June 7th vs. USA @ Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
June 11th vs. Colombia, NRG Stadium, Houston, TX

The Ticos’ performance at the 2014 World Cup is so often forgotten by fans in the United States and Mexico. Long looked at as CONCACAF’s third or even fourth best team, Costa Rica was a penalty shootout against the Dutch away from the semi-finals in Brazil, what would’ve been arguably the all-time greatest World Cup performance for a CONCACAF side.

Another cruel exit on penalties followed at the 2015 Gold Cup at the hands of Panama. This Costa Rica team is still on the brink of something special, but is filled with players that know their generational window of opportunity is closing fast. The Ticos are fighting to maintain their solid form over the last couple of years, while also fighting against the bad luck bestowed by the Footballing Gods.

One thing Oscar Ramirez can control is his squad selection. This team has a bite to it, and looks poised to stand strong in the group stage.

After finally getting a slight chance to impress at Arsenal this season, midfielder/forward Joel Campbell is one of the most highly touted Costa Rican players, and their most potent scoring threat.

Long time captain and inspirational leader Bryan Ruiz, now 30 years of age, will be another focal point of the Tico’s attack. While he hasn’t had any sort of electrifying season in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon (8 goals in 34 matches), the former Fulham and Alajualense man has a rich history of scoring incredible goals for his national team when playing on American soil. (Look up the World Cup Qualifier against the U.S. from October of 2009, just as one fine example.)

Fans of Major League Soccer will also be familiar with some of the Ticos, with four MLS based players making the final 23-man squad, most notably D.C. United forward Alvaro Saborio.

However, Costa Rica’s biggest strength stands in goal. There are few who would dare suggest that Keylor Navas is not the best goalkeeper at the Copa. You’ve seen him solidify himself as the main man at Real Madrid this season. He will be the last Costa Rican player to join up with the team, but it could be as a freshly crowned European champion, with the All Madrid Champions League Final taking place on May 28th, just seven days before Costa Rica open up against Paraguay. Will fatigue play a role in his Group A performance? Or is that a concept reserved for outfield players?

With Colombia looked at by most as the group favorite, Costa Rica was handed a nice gift by the schedule makers, as they play Colombia to finish off their Group A slate. While beneficial in some ways, it also heaps a massive amount of pressure on the Ticos, who know they must get at least one win from the Paraguay and U.S. affairs. The last thing Oscar Ramirez and his staff want is a do-or-die encounter with Colombia on the final day of the group stage. Neutrals watching the tournament may be wishing for that exact spectacle.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The idea of James Rodriguez, in a Colombia shirt, blasting a shot and forcing a diving save from his Real Madrid teammate, in goal for the Ticos, is quite dreamy.  It will likely be a reality in Houston on June 11th.

 

Paraguay

Manager: Ramon Diaz

Schedule: June 4th vs Costa Rica @ Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
June 7th vs Colombia @ Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
June 11th vs USA @ Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA

Does Paraguay have a chance to exit the first round?

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that La Albirroja looks like the most vulnerable team in Group A. The team has only secured two wins in the last 11 games in all competitions and is currently sitting in an underwhelming seventh spot in CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying competition.

A few supporters might be quick to point out that Paraguay finished as semifinalists during last year’s Copa America, but the squad might have been lucky to do so with just one win during the entire tournament. Those same fans would probably not want to bring up the 6-1 loss to Argentina during said semifinals either.

Yes, La Albirroja’s chances are slim, but there is a chance nonetheless — especially if a couple of names from the Liga MX step up for the team. Club America’s Pablo Aguilar has found plenty of success in Mexico with Las Aguilas and might become a difference-maker if he maintains his form from the league. Then there’s Cruz Azul striker Jorge Benitez who finished his season with nine goals and four assists in 14 games.

There are also young talents like Derlis Gonzalez and Oscar Romero who may have a breakout tournament for the team. Both youngsters already have numerous international caps to their names and might be able to garner more attention next month with their influence in the Paraguayan attack.

To answer our question from the beginning of this section, it seems unlikely that La Albirroja will exit the group stage. Costa Rica and Colombia are arguably better teams, and the United States will have a significant home-field advantage during the match in Philadelphia. The recent lack of wins won’t do much to help with confidence either.

Yet, if the team was able to sneak into the final four last year with just one win, perhaps the same luck will be on its side this summer.

Nate’s Group A Prediction:

1. Colombia
2. Costa Rica
3. United States
4. Paraguay

Cesar’s Group A Prediction:

1. Colombia
2. United States
3. Costa Rica
4. Paraguay

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