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Copa America moving north for its Centenario? The perks of being a soccer fan in the United States

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One of soccer’s worst kept secrets is a secret no more. South American soccer will be invading the U.S. in 2016, bringing its confederation championship to the United States for a joint CONMEBOL-CONCACAF Copa America. The details still need to be worked out, but the 16-team tournament is set to combine South America’s 10 teams with six from the northern half of the hemisphere. Copa America Centenario, as they’re calling it, could be the most prestigious competition in the States since the 2003 Women’s World Cup, the most anticipated since the 1999 women’s championship, and, in terms of overall popularity, end up being second only to the 1994 World Cup.

It’s easy to embrace those dreams now, two years from the event. We can see the seats teams like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have filled in the United States and use that to fuel dreams of a globally significant competition. This isn’t the Gold Cup, which has trouble resonating beyond soccer hardcores, and it isn’t the Women’s World Cup, which too many still won’t give a chance. This is an event that will have Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Agüero and Arturo Vidal. It enthrall draw those that dismiss MLS. It will entice people who prefer Spain and Italy to Premier League soccer.

It’s hard to imagine a North America-based men’s soccer fan that won’t be excited by this event, but that doesn’t totally answer the obvious question: Why? Why is this event coming to the United States? This is the South American championship, isn’t it? Certainly, there’s a tradition of CONCACAF teams rounding out Copa America’s field, but the tournament still happens in South America. Why is CONMEBOL’s championship going to be waged on CONCACAF’s turf?

For the 100-year anniversary of the continental title, CONMEBOL clearly wants to do something special. That’s why they’re waging the quadrennial tournament in an off-year, after all. As evidenced by all the stadiums that sell out for visits from the Seleçao and Albiceleste, there’s a huge demand to see South America’s giants in this part of the world. And by including Mexico and the United States, the commercial opportunities for the competition explode. If you’re going to have the tournament in a special year, might was well be in a special place.

It’s that sentiment that gets to be the heart of this announcement: In the soccer world, there’s still no place as special as the United States. There are more hallowed grounds, and there are a number of nations around the world that have more colorful and robust traditions, yet the U.S. still holds the distinction of being the soccer world’s holy grail. As a nation, we’re not in love with the sport yet, but we have one of the most passionate sports markets in the world. It’s not only a matter of entities like CONMEBOL — as well as the myriad huge European clubs that tour here every year — looking at the U.S. and saying “if only we could tap into that.” Those actors have a chance to frame how U.S. soccer develops.

source: Getty Images
Brazil’s Neymar will be among the stars on display as Copa America comes to the U.S. in 2016. (Source: Getty Images)

Some people, besmirched, see that view as patronizing. U.S. soccer has its own soccer culture. The idea that South America or Europe can come in and instill their own, even in part, is insulting. If the United States is a type of holy grail — one of the few remaining places on the planet that soccer has yet to conquer — it’s a holy grail that will be protected by the people on the ground.  Soccer is a growth opportunity in the U.S. It’s not a charity case.

All of that may be true, but the view undercuts the country’s potential. The U.S. can have a major, vibrant culture for domestic soccer, one that will always see the national teams as a focal point for the sport. It can also have a huge, eastern-looking group that will always love the standards and history of the European game. At the same time, it can have millions that look south to embrace the passion and traditions of the Latin and South Americans games. And in time, as leagues in Japan, South Korea, and China grow, we’ll have people who stay up until 2 a.m. Eastern to watch Guangzhou face Kashima in Champions League.

For fans in the United States, that’s what this tournament could be about. As much as the talents of Messi and the prestige of Brazil may dominate headlines, the subtext will be about the future. If a Copa America in the United States can meet our loftiest expectations, it will establish the country as the target location for any prestigious competition, be that a confederation title, club tournamenst, or a potential summer league of European teams that’s been hinted at by the Champions Cup. Whereas FIFA’s decision to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States was met with questions about potential apathy, the world is now racing to leverage two decades of growth.

There as never been a better time to be a soccer fan in the United States, and between the growth of Major League Soccer, the huge access to the club game on television, and events like Copa America’s Centenario, there may be no better place in the world to absorb the game. If Copa is successful, it will get even better.

Mourinho lauds Pogba, Zlatan after EFL Cup triumph

United manager Jose Mourinho applauds during the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Southampton FC at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
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Jose Mourinho knows his side is fortunate to come away with the EFL Cup, and he’s fairly confident who deserves the credit.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored to help Manchester United build a 2-0 lead over Southampton on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, then added the winner in the 87th minute of the Red Devils’ 3-2 win.

[ MORE: Recap | Zlatan reacts | 3 things ]

Mourinho said his “outstanding” legendary striker won the game for United, adding that big buy Paul Pogba was close to the same level.

And while the manager didn’t appear too impressed with the win, admitting that Southampton did not deserve its fate, Mourinho is happy to win. From Sky Sports:

“I’m a bit emotional. It’s not easy to win titles so many times, it’s not easy to cope with the pressure I put myself under all of my career, It was a game I felt was difficult, so credit goes to Southampton. We have the cup in our hands but we should be playing extra-time. Winning is always special. The day I don’t get emotional when I win is the day I go home.”

United is still alive in the FA Cup and the UEFA Europa League, while Mourinho’s men sit sixth in the Premier League table with 48 points. They’ve played one match less than leaders Chelsea, which has 63 points.

Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United scores their third goal during the EFL Cup Final between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Manchester United beat Southampton 3-2 at Wembley on Sunday in a thrilling EFL Cup Final.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s late winner gave Jose Mourinho’s men a largely undeserved victory as the Portuguese manager won his first major trophy as Red Devils boss.

Here’s what we learned from a pulsating, topsy-turvy encounter.


ZLATAN’S THE MAN

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the man for the big occasion.

He scored a superb free kick and a late header to make it two trophies from two trips to Wembley, as he also scored the winner late on against Leicester City in the Community Shield in August.

At the age of 35 he’s defied belief with his 26 goals this season and is showing the world just how good he is. Mourinho said in the week that Zlatan has got better with age and with 26 goals in 38 appearances he continues to look at home in the PL.

He didn’t have his best game, but the big Swede popped up with two vital goals to win the trophy for his team.

Zlatan is a born winner. It’s just what he does.


SLACK UNITED SUCCEED

Somehow Manchester United found themselves 2-0 up against Southampton after 38 minutes. They didn’t deserve it. Not at all. But then again, that’s the sign of a champion.

Southampton should have been 1-0 up after 11 minutes. Cedric cut the ball back from the right flank and Gabbiadini’s goal was chalked out for offside. The Italian striker timed his run to perfection and tapped home. Saints were in dreamland. Well, they should have been. Linesman Stuart Burt put his flag up presumably because he thought Bertrand was interfering with play at the back post. He wasn’t. It was a shocker of a call and ultimately changed the outcome of the game.

Even after going behind to Ibrahimovic’s free kick, Saints did all the pressing. Jesse Lingard put United 2-0 up before the break but United never got a grip on the game as Saints’ wide play bamboozled their full backs. As well as having a perfectly good goal chalked off, Saints also hit the post with Oriol Romeu‘s header in the second half.

Those are the kind of breaks which are going United’s way of late, as they’ve now lost just one game in their past 27 in all competitions.

Mourinho must know his team were lucky to get past Saints and lift the trophy. Then again, he’ll argue that the sign of a true champion is digging out a win when you don’t deserve it.

That’s what he is building.


OFFSIDE DENIES GABBIADINI, SAINTS

Manolo Gabbiadini has scored five goals in his first three games for Southampton after joining from Napoli on Deadline Day in January. He should have had six goals in three games and a hat trick in the EFL Cup Final.

The 25-year-old joined without much fanfare for a fee believed to be around $19 million, with the likes of Everton said to be close to signing him back in the summer. In recent months Gabbiadini felt out of favor at Napoli under manager Maurizio Sarri. Gabbiadini’s goal return hasn’t been too impressive with 25 goals in 76 appearances in the last three seasons.

His movement was sharp throughout and his finishing sublime. Southampton have done some incredible business in the past few years but he may turn out to be the best of the bunch. This defeat was a bitter one for Saints, but if they can continue to buy players of Gabbiadini’s quality then they’ll be fighting for trophies and top 10 finishes for many years to come.

As disappointed as they’ll be, the future is looking bright for Saints.

“My friend, I keep doing it” – Zlatan lifts another Cup

United's Marcos Rojo celebrates with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the ground, at the end of the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Southampton FC at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. United won 3-2. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has answered every question, including whether his big game prowess extends to England.

The Big Swede scored early and late as Manchester United won the EFL Cup with a 3-2 win over Southampton on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 3-2 Southampton ]

Ibrahimovic has won trophies at every stop from Ajax to Old Trafford, and now has given Jose Mourinho the distinction of being the first manager to win the League Cup with two different clubs.

From the BBC:

“This is a team effort. This is what I came for – to win and I am winning. The more I win the more satisfied I get.

“You appreciated it more the older you get. Wherever I have gone I have won. I think this is trophy number 32 for me.

“This is what I predicted. To many I could not do it. My friend, I keep doing it. I’m enjoying it in England.”

He sure is.

Zlatan the hero as Manchester United wins EFL Cup

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United (C) celebrates with Eric Bailly (L) and Paul Pogba (R) as he scores their first goal during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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  • Zlatan opens, closes scoring
  • Mourinho wins first tourney with Utd
  • Lingard scores
  • Gabbiadini with Saints brace

Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to the occasion at Wembley Stadium, scoring early and late as Manchester United defeated Southampton 3-2 in an instant classic EFL Cup Final on Sunday.

Jesse Lingard also scored as Jose Mourinho became the first manager to win a League Cup with two sides (Chelsea).

Manolo Gabbiadini scored twice as Saints erased a 2-0 deficit in their first final since 1979.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Paul Pogba unleashed a furious shot from 20-plus yards in the 4th minute that Fraser Forster popped away from danger for the match’s first moment of danger.

Saints earned a corner with their first true bit of possession, which came almost exclusively from the dribbling of Nathan Redmond. It led to another corner, which Pogba eventually sent free of trouble.

Poor defending from United from Marcos Rojo nearly put Saints in front, but an incorrectly ruled offside Manolo Gabbiadini put the ball in the goal.

Oriol Romeu earned a yellow card for a late tackle on Ander Herrera, cueing up United for a 19th minute free kick that Ibrahimovic sent home.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Gabbiadini then fed James Ward-Prowse for a strong shot that De Gea did very well to slap away.

Soon after, it was Dusan Tadic‘s turn. Cued up by Redmond, he forced De Gea into another excellent save.

Lingard made it 2-0 before halftime, given plenty of room to position Rojo’s pass for a successful strike.

But Gabbiadini got his goal just before the break, slipping behind Eric Bailly to poke home Saints’ first.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton (20) celebrates as he scores their second goal with Oriol Romeu of Southampton (14) during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The second half began just as lively, with De Gea making a stop on Redmond’s solid effort from inside the 18.

And Saints earned the corner that led to their equalizer moments later, Gabbiadini again the proverbial fox in the box to score on a half turn.

The game had passed the hour mark when Romeu headed a chance off the post.

Pogba and Ibrahimovic presided over another free kick in the 74th minute, but the wall did its job to keep the score 2-2.

Lingard lashed over soon after, and subsequently left the match for Marcus Rashford. Claude Puel also made a move, taking off Dusan Tadic for Sofiane Boufal.

It was fellow sub Shane Long who missed a chance to make it 3-2 when Ryan Bertrand blazed a run down the left to send an inviting ball across goal.

That’s when United won it. Ibrahimovic blazed down the field on a counter attack, but slowed up to let the Red Devils set up shop. Martial found Herrera on the right side of the box, and cross for the noggin of Ibrahimovic, who headed through the hands of Forster.