Group play is done, the quarterfinals are just ahead.
Eight teams have advanced and eight others -- two of which have already fired their head coaches –- are watching from afar. If it’s not surprising that six of the eight quarterfinalists are from South America, the absence of Brazil and Uruguay is not what most fans and pundits would have predicted.
Prior to the Copa America Centenario opening game June 3, questions abounded as to what levels of quality and intensity would be on display from the South American teams, who just played a proper Copa America in Chile last year and are battling their way through World Cup qualifying.
The top four Conmebol teams qualify automatically for Russia 2018; the fifth-place team goes into a playoff. Joint leaders Uruguay and Ecuador have 13 points, Argentina is third with 11, and right behind are Chile and Colombia with 10. Another point back are Brazil and Paraguay, and both teams used Centenario disappointments to invoke changes.
Most teams included most of their best players, and when big teams like Brazil and Uruguay fell prone to lapses, other nations took advantage. During the group phase, Conmebol announced Brazil would host the next Copa America in 2019. Whether another Centenario-type competition is in the stars is yet to be determined but in many aspects, it's been a wonderful show so far.
The two dozen games played to date have served up an enticing menu of excellent goals, terribly fluffed opportunities, heroes, villains, goats, and the requisite refereeing blunder. Here’s a rundown of a few major discussion points.
PAYING THE PRICE. Heading into the tournament, how costly would be a poor Centenario performance was hard to judge. Now there’s some evidence to peruse.
Paraguay head coach Ramon Diaz resigned after a 1-0 loss to the USA concluded its interest in the competition. Paraguay could have advanced after tying its first two matches against Costa Rica and Colombia, but failed to score playing 11 against 10 for most of the second half. Diaz had guided Paraguay to the Copa America semifinals last year and had a record of two wins, three ties, and one loss in Conmebol World Cup qualifying heading into the Centenario.
Joining him amongst the unemployed is Dunga, whose already tenuous tenure ended in controversial fashion when a blatant handball the officials missed enabled Peru to post a stunning 1-0 upset of Brazil on the final day of Group B play. Needing only a tie to win the group, Brazil’s blown scoring chances set the stage for Raul Ruidiaz to deceive the officials and knock out the five-time World Cup champion.
Dunga’s second stint in charge, much like the first, had triggered harsh complaints and criticisms of the team’s style. Being tied with Paraguay in the Conmebol standings cast Dunga onto thin ice before the tournament started and a 0-0 tie with Ecuador in Brazil’s Centenario opener jacked up the pressure. The Centenario merely speeded up the process of Dunga’s departure and gives his successor some time to reorganize for the resumption of qualifying play. Said successor will have Neymar, who bypassed the Centenario to save his energy (on orders of Barcelona) for the Rio-hosted 2016 Summer Olympics.
Uruguay’s tumble out the tournament, like that of Brazil, occurred in extraordinary circumstances but hasn’t prompted the departure of head coach Oscar Tabarez. After being outclassed by Mexico, 3-1, in its opener, Uruguay struggled against Venezuela. Tabarez kept Luis Suarez on the bench and watched Edinson Cavani squander three good opportunities before and after Venezuela scored an extraordinary goal. Salomon Rondon tapped in the rebound of an Alejandro Guerra chip from midfield that had bounced off the crossbar.
RISING UP. After Venezuela logged just one point its first six World Cup qualifiers, the last which was a 4-1 loss at home to Chile, the national soccer federation fired head coach Noel Sanvincente and appointed one of the nation’s most famous former players, Rafael Dudamel, in part because it couldn’t afford anybody else.
Dudamel played 56 times in goal for his country and his long list of former clubs include several in Colombia. His coaching experience prior to the hire consisted of brief stays at small domestic clubs and stints with the Venezuelan U-17 and U-20 teams. Coming out of the Centenario group phase the Vinotinto is one of the tournament’s top stories.
It clinched a quarterfinal spot by beating Jamaica and Uruguay by 1-0 scores and gave Mexico a good battle in a 1-1 tie that left the teams even atop Group C with seven points. Josef Martinez’s goal decided a rough battle with Jamaica, Rondon scored the goal deemed “a miracle” by losing Uruguayan coach Tabarez, and against Mexico Jose Manuel Velazquez scored with a stunning scissor-kick in the 10th minute.
Venezuela’s terrible start to the World Cup qualifying campaign has left it so far back -- nine points shy of the playoff spot -- it probably can’t make up enough ground to get into contention. Yet with four matches in October and November and Dudamel apparently pushing the right buttons, it can edge close to contention fairly quickly.
Peru has lost four of its six World Cup qualifiers and didn’t look very formidable while beating Haiti, 1-0, in its Group B opener, but jumped on top of Ecuador when Pablo Guerrero assisted on early goals by Christian Cueva and Edison Flores. After Ecuador replied twice to tie the match, 2-2, Ruidiaz nearly stole a victory for Peru but narrowly missed a chance in the final minutes.
Only in a few more months can it be determined if their Centenario showings have upgraded the future for Venezuela and Peru, but their spirited displays have contributed significantly to the intrigue of this competition. Their combined 2-0-1 record (wins, losses, ties) against Concacaf teams is also an indication there’s a significant drop in caliber once you get past Mexico, the USA, and Costa Rica when the confederations are compared head-to-head.
VIVA MEXICO. Backed by huge, raucous crowds, Mexico topped Group C to continue its amazing run under head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who took over last fall from interim coach Ricardo Ferretti after a 3-2 victory over the USA in the Concacaf Cup playoff.
But now comes crunch time for El Tri. It rallied from a goal down against Venezuela to grab first place in Group C and thus avoid a quarterfinal against Argentina. Chile should provide a tough enough test, though it needed a stoppage-time goal to get past Bolivia in its Group D finale on Tuesday.
Under Osorio, Mexico has yet to lose a game, though the tie with Venezuela stopped his personal winning streak at nine. The final Centenario tune-up for both teams was a 1-0 Mexico win in San Diego two weeks ago. If Mexico loses the rematch, much of the Osorio mystique will fade quickly.
GOLAZOS. A spectacular volley by Alexis Sanchez in Chile’s 4-2 defeat of Panama on the last day of group play found a place amongst the best goals scored so far.
Jermaine Jones’ insidious, swerving shot against Costa Rica might be the best of the U.S. bunch, though the buildup and finish on Clint Dempsey’s winner in the Paraguay game carried a touch of class. A mazy dribble and sharp shot by Jesus Corona of Mexico may have matched Velasquez’s beauty in the same match. Among the most elegant free kicks were that of Lionel Messi’s rip against Panama (sorry) and Jhasmani Campos for Bolivia in its loss to Chile.
And Messi’s hat trick? Here you go.