DAVID SMITH - Tuesday, June 7, 2016
The worst has to be over, right?
For US fans, the Copa América Centenario got off to a horrible start on Friday, where Jürgen Klinsmann's toothless lineup failed to take what would have been a golden opportunity to steal a result from an off-kilter Colombia.
Countless amounts of of time, words and brainpower have been dedicated by pundits and keyboard warriors alike to breaking down every aspect of the game in the time since the final whistle. What did Klinsmann get wrong? How is it going to be fixed in the next game? Is this a team that would get blown out by a team comprised of Costa Rica's grandmothers. Or Colombia on a bad day still a team good enough to beat the best the US has to offer by two goals?
Lost in the endless kvetching has been the fact that a rather entertaining, international, non-regional tournament is happening on US soil for the first time since the 1994 World Cup.
Here, I'll attempt to avoid much of the dissecting, scrutinizing and agonizing that have been the common theme of the last 3 days, and take a look around the tournament.
All hope is not (yet) lost
Yes, I do have to comment on the situation in Group A in the context of the US team. The formula is simple: two wins and you're in, anything less and it's up to the other teams to decide.
The 0-0 draw between Costa Rica and Paraguay was the best possible result for Klinsmann's team, still leaving them in control of their own fate, but with little room for error. If one goes on the assumption that Colombia will beat both Paraguay and Costa Rica, a combination of a win and a draw in the next two game could also be enough, but this would throw the team - and more dangerously us fans and our fragile health - into the nerveracking game of nasty tie-breakers.
With Colombia star James Rodríguez already looking set to miss their clash against Paraguay, the US needs a win in the evening's early game in order to control the narrative of who advances from the group.
Mexico wakes up a lackluster opening weekend
Up until the final game of the tournament's opening weekend, the dedicated fans watching this greatly hyped, albeit with questionable context, supposed showpiece of the best that the Americas had to offer were likely asking one question:
Where are the #@$! goals?!
Through the first five games of the tournament, a grand total of four goals had been scored, with only two of them from open play. This included scoreless duds between both Costa Rica and Paraguay (even if it is one that greatly benefits the US) as well as between Neymar-less tournament heavyweights Brazil and Ecuador.
Even the controversial non-goal that Ecuador feels they should have been awarded against Brazil was the result of a flukey instance of poor goalkeeping on the part of the inexperienced Seleção number-one Alisson.
Luckily, this all changed on Sunday night thanks to the feisty encounter between Mexico and Uruguay. Even without injured global star Luis Suárez (who I believe is really missing the tournament due to last-minute filming commitments for Sharknado 4), the game more than made up for the goals, drama, petulance, ejections, last-minute heroics and overall entertainment that had been lacking through the first 450 minutes of the tournament.
Along the way, Mexico unmistakably made their case to perhaps become the first non-CONMEBOL team to win the trophy.
The Uruguayan players, unwilling to accept the idea that a two-goal loss (which would have been even worse were it not for the last-second profligacy of el Tri) might be due to something other than a string of grave injustices, swarmed referee Enrique Cáceres following the final whistle in typical fashion.
Uruguay, please don't ever change. There's nothing that feeds our love of Schadenfreude like seeing the biggest sore losers in the soccer world...well...lose sorely.
In their defense, perhaps the Paraguayan referee gave some accidental signal he was the one truly responsible for the stadium crew accidentally playing the Chilean national anthem prior to the game.
Who wants a second serving?
Reports in Spanish-language ESPN Deportes are suggesting that plans are in the works for a repeat of this summer's festivities in the US every four years.
According to two unnamed CONCACAF officials, logistics and financials surrounding the tournament have gone so incredibly well that an agreement was nearly in place to turn this single-serving plate into an all-you-can-eat buffet going forward.
With the traditional Copa América having recently switched to a four-year cycle - and locations already set for 2019 (Brazil) and 2023 (Ecuador), it is unlikely that this would be a possibility to supplant the current schedule. The collective CONMEBOL countries voluntarily giving up hosting rights of their signature tournament - even on a regular basis - is unthinkable.
However, adding yet another major international tournament to the calendar, would effectively remove another summer of recovery for the legions of South American players who are presently, and will in the future be the big-money stars of Europe. This won't go over well with the clubs.
This is exacerbated by the aforementioned questionability of the tournament's context, which from day one has appeared more a money grab than a true celebration of the Copa's first-ever staging in Argentina in 1916. Remove the Centenario and the thin veil is lifted.
That said, the selfish American soccer-nut in me would jump at the long-term prospect of more servings, especially if it would take one of the biennial Gold Cup tournaments out of play. Apart from filling a few stadiums, is there a need for the off-year Gold Cup? Without waxing poetic, I can sum up my feelings in the following:
As a permanent resident within the Central European timezone, I typically check the scores of the off-year Gold Cup after I wake up in the morning because I have to. For this tournament, I stayed up all hours of the night to watch the the US do battle (and eventually flail helplessly) against Colombia, and will do the same for many other games in the tournament because I want to.
They saved the best for first
The final game of the first round featured current title holders (and fifth-ranked) Chile against worldwide-top-ranked tournament favorites Argentina, in a rematch of last summer's final that saw Chile win their first-ever Copa in a penalty shoot-out.
Coincidentally, Argentina were also the hosts of the first-ever Copa in 1916. First-ever hosts in a rematch against current- first-time champs...
This is the type of top billing you'd hope to see in a knockout round or at least during a later, more deciding game in the third round of group play.
A heavy sense of nostalgia and a wistful eye for the narrative a tournament can provide from the ceremonious opener to the final would place this game as the showpiece first game in Buenos Aires.
Alas, dollar signs and the draw dictated the headlining act would come on a Monday evening, in historic Levi's Stadium, in a Bay Area suburb.
In the end, Argentina's injured talisman Leo Messi was not needed for La Albiceleste to notch a 2-1 win, with Ángel Di María and Éver Banega teaming up on both goals. The close scoreline - which was mainly due to a last-second consolation tally by Chile - aside, did little to dispel Argentina's label as predominant tournament favorites.
Even with the loss, the reigning champs are also still more than likely to qualify for the knockout round, as few would expect them to slip up against lowly Bolivia or Panama.
This could put both teams on course for a final-game rematch in the poetically named MetLife stadium.
One quarter of the games have been played and even if the financially-driven first conception, missing international superstars and questionable geographical context have removed the easy narratives from the tournament, there are still 24 more games for a new and unique storyline to be written.