The fact that this year is the centennial of the Copa América tournament guarantees that it would be a special one, regardless of what happened. Now that the semifinals are about to get underway, it is clear that this is more special than any Copa América we could have imagined.
First of all, some of the usual suspects are gone. Brazil, which had been on top of its group up until its final round robin game, failed to advance to the quarterfinals after inexplicably losing to Peru. The now-former Seleção coach Dunga paid a steep price for not including Neymar on his squad; although, to be fair, it must be noted that his club team, FC Barcelona, was only willing to let him go to one tournament, either the Copa or the Olympics. Brazil now faces an identity crisis, and it will be interesting to see what will happen at the Rio Olympics.
Mexico, another challenger for the Copa América title, is also conspicuously absent from the semifinals. The Mexican national team was completely humiliated in its 7-0 quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Chile. It was the worst defeat in team history.
Chile must be congratulated for this dismantling of El Tri, as a win on this scale was certainly unexpected. Mexico’s national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio will be under even more intense scrutiny now, and I would not be shocked if he were fired soon. The Mexican football federation will also come under fire for the way that many of its supporters handled this game. Violence, as always, is never the answer.
If the semifinals are notable for the teams that are missing, they are also notable for the teams that will be playing in them. Most importantly, the U.S. Men’s National Team will be making its first appearance since 1995 in a Copa América semifinal when it takes on Lionel Messi’s Argentina tonight in the grand city of Houston.
This is a huge deal for soccer in the United States. Prior to the start of the tournament, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann was coming under fire for the disappointing way that his team was playing. This tournament was the make-or-break moment for Klinsmann—and boy, has his team delivered.
I will admit that I did not expect the USMNT to make it this far. Then again, I did not expect Brazil or Mexico to fall out this quickly as well, so my predictions for this tournament have been quite off.
Part of the reason that the Americans are doing so well is because they have finally resolved the inconsistency problems that used to haunt them. Klinsmann was well-known for being a tinkerer, rarely fielding the same lineup. This is definitely not the case in Copa América. While Klinsmann will be forced to make changes tonight due to the suspensions of Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood, and Alejandro Bedoya, we can expect to see pretty much the same team that we have been seeing. Even though captain Michael Bradley has had a relatively quiet campaign, the performance of a few key players has been enough to carry the USMNT forward.
Another key factor to the success of the Red, White and Blue has been the phenomenal play of defender John Brooks. As center back, Brooks has been a solid anchor of the defense—a steady rock that we have not seen years. Once ridiculed for the number of mistakes that he made, Brooks has clearly reached new heights in his game. Over the course of the tournament, Brooks has made 34 clearances and helped the USMNT to only allow three goals. Frequently scoring a ten in performance rating from sports journalists, Brooks will be pivotal in this game.
Clint Dempsey, the former captain of the USMNT, is another player who has been essential to his team’s success. A seasoned veteran, Dempsey has been the true playmaker for the USMNT, with his hand in nearly every goal. This was especially evident in the United States’ 2-1 victory of Ecuador in the quarterfinals. Both goals were made possible by beautiful plays from Dempsey, with one being scored by the man himself. Dempsey has proved his critics wrong time and time again. If the USMNT has any chance of winning against the number one ranked team in the world, it will be because of Dempsey.
During the 2014 World Cup, American goalkeeper Tim Howard became a national hero for the crucial saves that he made. Fast forward two years later, and now that honor has fallen to Brad Guzan, and it is a move that has paid off so far. Guzan has been a calm, steady presence in net, a stark contrast to the disastrous year that he had for Aston Villa. It has been largely thanks to the fantastic saves of Guzan—including a thrilling double-save in the game against Paraguay—that the Americans have let in so few goals. At merely 31 years of age, Guzan can be a force for the USMNT for years to come.
Regardless of what happens in tonight’s game, we should all be proud of what our national team has accomplished It has certainly silenced the critics, and we can expect a fantastic semifinal match.
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