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.

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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.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.