Last night was the draw for the Copa America Centenario, this summer’s tournament bringing together the best of North and South America, and as hosts, the U.S. had reason to hope for a favorable draw. It really could not have gone much worse.
The U.S. was one of the four seeded teams, meaning group play matches against powers Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico were impossibilities. And the U.S. could have landed Uruguay in their group, and didn’t, so be thankful for small mercies. But the draw put them together with perhaps the three toughest teams remaining:
- June 3, at Santa Clara, vs. Colombia
- June 7, at Chicago, vs. Costa Rica
- June 11, at Philadelphia, vs. Paraguay
“I take full responsibility,” joked former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, one of four former pros who participated in the presentation. “I apologize to the nation.”
Conspiracy theories aside (if world soccer wanted to punish America for bringing down FIFA, we’d have gotten Uruguay), it looks grim, sure. Colombia and Costa Rica both made it to the quarterfinals at the last World Cup, and Paraguay, the only team of the three behind the U.S. in the world rankings, is historically a tough matchup for the Americans. The USMNT will need to take points off at least two of these sides, and none of them are gimmes.
Except we’ve been here before, and assumed we were boned, and weren’t. The 2014 World Cup draw stuck the U.S. in one of the groups of death, and they beat Ghana without it feeling particularly unlikely, and drew Portugal in a match they could easily have won. Not being favored in a match doesn’t mean the U.S. can’t or won’t win it.
“Obviously it’s a difficult group, no doubt about it, but it’s doable,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann afterward. “We had a similar kind of scenario in Brazil and we went through, and so now we start with Colombia right away instead of Ghana.
Don’t underestimate the importance of home-field advantage. American fans oughtn’t be outnumbered or outchanted in their own stadiums against any of these three. There’s also the possibility that the U.S. won’t face full-strength squads. Per ESPN’s Doug McIntyre, Colombia could be preparing for the Olympics (if they beat the U.S. for the final qualifying spot in March), and Paraguay’s coach has made noise about bringing a younger roster up for the Copa America.
But: we don’t want to win that way, do we? Bring on the challenges, because the USMNT is never going to keep improving by beating up on the Haitis of the world. What has been considered a “winnable” match has progressed incredibly in recent decades, to the point where hanging tough with Colombia would still be an upset, but it wouldn’t be a miracle. That’s a hell of an accomplishment already—I’ll always take a side that takes on all comers, even if it loses more than it wins. Because they can win. The U.S. can do this.