SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In his efforts to move American soccer along, Jurgen Klinsmann has underscored the importance of the U.S. men’s national team testing itself against greater competition.
Geography, however, creates limitations. World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup involve opponents from a regional sect that the United States and Mexico have ruled for 25 years. One gains only so much from matches against El Salvador and Jamaica.
Beyond CONCACAF’s borders, the opportunity to play up a level rests with the World Cup every fourth year, with inconsequential friendlies and, on rare occasion, pop-up tournaments.
And so that is why Klinsmann has gushed for months about Copa America Centenario, a 16-nation festival involving the primary nations of South America and a half-dozen northern guests for 24 days of high-end soccer.
The U.S. squad will open group play against Colombia on Friday before more than 60,000 at Levi’s Stadium. Costa Rica, a CONCACAF colleague that rolled to the World Cup quarterfinals two years ago, and Paraguay round out the most balanced of the four first-round quartets.
Copa America is a South American party. The four-year rotation brought it to Chile last summer. But to celebrate the 100th anniversary — and make a bundle of cash off ticket sales, rights fees and sponsorships – organizers hatched the idea of a true championship of the Americas.
If not for this tournament, Klinsmann would have probably arranged friendlies against teams prepping for the European Championship. The balance of the summer would have been spent monitoring in-season MLS players, keeping touch with vacationing foreign-based figures and formulating plans for the resumption of World Cup qualifying in September.
Instead, his team is tossed in a tournament featuring Lionel Messi and World Cup runner-up Argentina, reigning Copa America champion Chile, Brazil and Mexico, among others. Five of the top nine teams in the FIFA rankings will perform.
“We can measure ourselves with the big, big names from down south,” he said. “So it’s huge.”
Copa America comes in the wake of the Americans missing out on another competition involving teams outside their comfort zone: the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, an eight-nation dress rehearsal for the World Cup a year later.
The U.S. team had two chances to clinch its first Confederations berth since 2009 last year but failed to win the Gold Cup and lost a special playoff to Mexico in extra time at the sold-out Rose Bowl.
Klinsmann took it hard, lamenting a lost opportunity to play the likes of World Cup champion Germany and this summer’s European Championship winner, as well as get a feel for Russian stadiums and logistics.
Copa America offers upgraded competition on a global stage. Each time since 1993, South American organizers have invited two guest teams. The Americans last appeared in 2007 in Venezuela but sent a B team because of scheduling conflicts with the Gold Cup.
“Being in CONCACAF, we don’t get the opportunity to participate every time,” captain Michael Bradley said. “And so when opportunities come around, you want to take full advantage — a chance to play big games against big teams in moments that really count.”
The tournament comes at a critical time for Klinsmann, who is approaching his fifth anniversary at the helm. There have been accomplishments (winning the 2013 Gold Cup and escaping the so-called Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup) but also a fourth-place finish in last year’s Gold Cup, a sluggish start to the 2018 qualifiers and scrutiny of his player selections and tactics.
Interest in the team has waned, as well. Though several factors are involved, each of the last five U.S. home friendlies has failed to draw 10,000 spectators. Many, if not most, of Friday’s crowd will support Colombia: According to Ticketbis, Colombians have purchased 75 percent of the seats available on the resale market.
Copa America offers the chance to reengage with the fan base and rekindle attention.
“Whenever we’ve gone to tournaments, people always doubted us and said if you look at the lineup, we don’t have as strong a team as Brazil or Argentina,” defender Geoff Cameron said.
Employed by Stoke City in the Premier League, Cameron invoked giant-slayer Leicester City as an example of what is possible against long odds.
“When teams come together and work for one another,” he added, “you see amazing things happen.”
The U.S. team avoided South American powers in the first-round draw, but unlike the other clusters, Group A appears wide open. Two of the four teams will advance to the quarterfinals, a step that, in most observers’ eyes, is a must for Klinsmann’s gang playing at home.
The Americans seem to be finding their way: They won all three tuneups by a combined 8-1 to improve to 6-1-0 in 2016; every regular is healthy, except for sidelined striker Jozy Altidore; and the lineup appears to have taken shape without as many head-scratching choices.
“Our goal is to get out of that very difficult group, and we believe that we will do that,” Klinsmann said. “We have to learn in a tournament how to get to the next level and, in Copa America, it’s winning your quarterfinal. This is our goal.”
The United States hasn’t won a match in the knockout stage of a World Cup since 2002, and that came against CONCACAF rival Mexico.
“We want to play six games in this tournament,” Klinsmann said, “and we believe this roster is very hungry, very determined [to] make it happen.”
United States vs. Colombia
Where: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
When: Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET.
TV: FS1, Univision, UniMas, Univision Deportes.
Online: Fox Sports Go, foxsoccer2go.com, univisiondeportes.com
Game-time weather outlook: 85 degrees and sunny.