SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Copa America Centenario kicks off Friday with a chance for the United States men’s national team to test itself against one of the world’s best, when taking on 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists Colombia. The tournament, taking place across the U.S. and combining 10 teams from South America and six from the Concacaf region for the first time, has been dubbed the biggest soccer event to hit the U.S. since the 1994 World Cup.
On the pitch, though, it will also provide an assessment of the team’s progress under coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Since the last World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. has endured major disappointment at the 2015 Gold Cup and then in losing a Confederations Cup playoff to Mexico. Klinsmann has been the subject of plenty of criticism, although the team is now in a strong position to make the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying following a shaky start.
Adding to the pressure at the Copa America, Klinsmann’s side has been drawn into a tough group, also containing another quarterfinalist from the last World Cup, Costa Rica, as well as Paraguay. Still, having come through a difficult group in Brazil 2014, Klinsmann claims to be relishing the challenge of Friday’s opening clash at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
“The opportunity to open up the competition with a game against Colombia, which is momentarily one of the best teams in the world, it's a real pleasure,” he said in his pre-match press conference.
“It’s something that excites us. It's a nice challenge, and for us it's a way to benchmark ourselves, how good we are, and give them a real, real tough game. Our goal is to get through this group and then take it from there, get us far as we can.”
The U.S. won its final warm-up match 4-0 against Bolivia on Saturday, when 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund starlet Christian Pulisic, who scored his first international goal, and Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe made starring cameos off the bench. Still, Klinsmann is expected to resist the temptation and the significant calls for the duo to start the opener.
As for the Yanks’ opponents, Colombia has left out experienced forwards Jackson Martinez, Radamel Falco and Adrian Ramos from its squad. But coach Jose Pekerman can count on the services of Carlos Bacca, fresh from scoring 18 Serie A goals in his first season for Italian giants AC Milan.
The team’s talisman, though, will be James Rodríguez. The 24-year-old claimed superstar status at the last World Cup, scoring six goals and earning a big-money move to Real Madrid. Things have not gone quite as well for the attacking midfielder over the past season, however, finding himself out of the team for Madrid’s run to the Champions League title. Pekerman, though, has backed his star to be a key player for Colombia over the coming weeks at the Copa America.
Colombia enters the match with the U.S. on the back of a three-game win streak, including a 3-1 victory over Haiti in a friendly on Sunday. Los Cafeteros has also recovered from a poor start to World Cup qualifying by recording wins over Bolivia and Ecuador to sit just outside the automatic qualification places.
Kickoff Time: 9:30 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1, Univision, UniMás, Univision Deportes