The United States national team is in a strange position at the 2016 Copa America Centenario. They are hosts of a tournament that determines the champion of a different continent altogether.
But despite the vocal detractors—the Uruguayan FA among them—this tournament presents a unique opportunity for the United States to establish their credentials as a serious contender in world football.
Before this tournament began there was plenty of speculation that the South American powerhouses would not take this tournament seriously. After all, the real Copa America took place last summer, and Chile are the rightful champions for the next three years, as many have argued.
In the end, however, all of the CONMEBOL teams have brought their best squads to the United States, with the exception of Brazil, who are resting Neymar for a chance at winning the gold medal at the first ever Olympics held in South America.
A 2-0 defeat in the opening match against Colombia was the worst possible beginning to the tournament for Jürgen Klinsmann’s side, who looked thoroughly outclassed. Their next fixture against Costa Rica, who were held to a scoreless draw by Paraguay in their opener, was crucial.
Klinsmann has come under severe pressure from American supporters for his occasionally questionable squad selection and tactics, but more importantly for the poor results over the past year. The appointment of a European manager who led Germany to a 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup was seen as a coup by the United States Soccer Federation, but five years later the excitement and optimism has waned. Tuesday’s match was therefore as significant as any that the US had played during the German’s tenure.
The US delivered. A 4-0 victory over Costa Rica—World Cup quarterfinalists just two years ago—was one of the most impressive and most significant moments in the recent history of American soccer. It was an emphatic victory that solidified the credentials of the USMNT as a legitimate threat in this tournament.
This result does not take the heat off Klinsmann entirely. The upcoming match will decide if the US makes it out of the group and will determine the legacy of this tournament for American soccer.
Despite the significance of the match USA vs Costa Rica, the atmosphere was disappointing. Chicago’s Soldier Field was less than 2/3 full. Large sections of the stadium were entirely empty, with no tickets even being sold there. The only part of the stadium that was entirely occupied with supporters was the South end, where the US supporters group ‘American Outlaws’ were based.
Exorbitant ticket prices prevented many potential supporters from attending. Poor marketing was another factor. Many American fans on social media complained that they had no idea that the centenary of the Copa America was even taking place in the United States, or that Chicago was hosting a match between the US and Costa Rica.
There are still two matches to be played in Chicago—Argentina takes on Panama on Friday and a semifinal is taking place at Soldier Field in two weeks. So far, the American victory over Costa Rica has the potential to become a seminal moment for soccer in this country in terms of its on-the-pitch impact. As for the how the tournament as a whole will go down in the history of soccer in this country, the jury is still out.