Commentary

USA reaps benefits of South American opposition

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

Reaching a Copa America Centenario semifinal against Argentina to be played on Tuesday is being hailed as an historic accomplishment for the U.S. national team.

It is historic partially for its rarity, since seldom has the USA played South American opponents such as Colombia, Paraguay and Ecuador in official competitions. Those are the mid-tier South American opponents that give the best measure of where the USA stands on the world stage.

(We will mention that the USA has lost three times to Brazil in the 2003 and 2009 Confederations Cups.)
Since 1990, only twice has a U.S. team faced a Conmebol foe in a World Cup and both of those occurred -- as is the case with the Centenario -- on home soil:
 
1994 World Cup
Group phase: USA 2, Colombia 1.
Round of 16: USA 0, Brazil 1.
 
By luck of the draw, the USA hasn’t been placed in the same World Cup group as a South American team since 1994. It has avoided seeds Brazil and Argentina each time and seems to get an African team or Asian foe rather than a Conmebol nation: Iran in 1998, South Korea in 2002, Ghana in 2006 and 2014, Algeria in 2010. The USA gets at least two European nations every time but South American matchups are rare.
In three of the last four World Cups, the Americans have advanced out of group play but never have they met Conmebol teams in the knockout phase:
 
USA Knockout Results (past four World Cups)
2002 round of 16: USA 2, Mexico 0.
2002 quarterfinal: Germany 1, USA 0.
2006: USA did not advance.
2010 round of 16: Ghana 2, USA 1 (OT).
2014 round of 16: Belgium 2, USA 1 (OT).
 
The Centenario, should it continue in some form, would be an excellent training ground to take the U.S. team beyond a repetitive, stodgy diet of Concacaf opposition served up by Gold Cup tournaments and World Cup qualifiers.

If not, should the U.S. pursue more aggressively a spot in the Copa America? This would be much easier to facilitate if Concacaf discontinues its policy of playing a Gold Cup every two years and follows the same quadrennial format as other regional championships: the Africa Cup of Nations, Copa America, Asian Cup, European Championship, etc.
 
1993 Copa America
In 1993, U.S. Soccer used the Copa America as part of its preparations for the Gold Cup to be played in the USA and Mexico, which also participated. The USA was grouped with the host nation and managed only a point, and that was after blowing a 3-0 lead. Mexico reached the final, which it lost to Argentina, 2-1. Mexico rolled over the USA, 4-0, in the Gold Cup final.
 
Group phase: Uruguay 1, USA 0; Ecuador 2, USA 0; Venezuela 3, USA 3.
 
1995 Copa America
Concacaf skipped the summer of 1995 for its next Gold Cup and instead staged it the following January in the USA. Thus U.S. Soccer could send its strongest available team to the Copa America being hosted by Uruguay and by beating Chile as well as Argentina in group play the Americans advanced to the knockout rounds, and knocked out Mexico on PKs.
 
Group phase: USA 2, Chile 1; Bolivia 1, USA 0; USA 3, Argentina 0.
Quarterfinals: USA 0, Mexico 0 (USA wins on 4-1 on penalty kicks).
Semifinals: Brazil 1, USA 0.
Third-place match: Colombia 4, USA 1.
 
2007 Copa America
Conflicts arose again in 2007 except that the Gold Cup, won by the USA after a 2-1 defeat of Mexico in the final, this time preceded the Copa America. Again, the U.S. regulars stayed behind and the Americans struggled. Mexico kept most of its team intact and after beating Brazil in group play eventually finished third.
 
Group phase: Argentina 4, USA 1; Paraguay 3, USA 1; Colombia 1, USA 0.
 
GOING FORWARD. If after the 2017 Gold Cup, Concacaf held off the next one until 2021, it would avoid conflicts with the next Copa America in 2019, and thus free up the USA -- and probably Mexico -- to play in the competition.

As beneficial as this would be for the U.S. team, it wouldn’t be welcomed by the rest of the Concacaf nations, unless the Copa America would in effect become a Centenario, with six Concacaf countries joining the 10 Conmebol teams and thus giving more teams the opportunity to play South American foes with something on the line. (The big stumbling block is that FIFA does not consider the Copa America -- non-Centenario -- a regional championship for Concacaf teams, so clubs are not required to release players.)

By reaching the final four of the Centenario, the U.S. will play one-half of the 10 South American countries if it plays Chile in the third-place game or final. In Argentina, the USA is also facing the No. 1 ranked team in the world as well as global icon Lionel Messi. If it wants to take big strides instead of baby steps -- how long have American fans been hearing that term? -- this is the opponent and the occasion to do just that.

8 comments about "USA reaps benefits of South American opposition".
  1. Bob Ashpole, June 20, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.

    Great article. USA is playing for more than a cup; they are playing for pride. If the team plays its best, they will win the important moral victory regardless of the score. Seven years have passed since the USA upset then-#1 Spain on June 24, 2009 at the Confederations Cup. Tomorrow would be a great time for another upset.

  2. Claus Fischer, June 20, 2016 at 8:02 p.m.

    The last 30 minutes against Ecuador was abysmal from the USMNT. They invited Ecuador right back into the game, nearly gifting Ecuador the one goal that Ecuador put in. The US 9 field players couldn't string together even three passes to come anywhere near crossing the midfield line. Ecuador played nearly 80% of that final half hour in Seattle right on the edge of the US's penalty area. If Ecuador's central striker actually knew what he was doing, the USA loses 2-3. So, yes, one could say that the USMNT benefits from playing this South American squads in an actual tournament. We should to. It is beneficial to see how poorly coached and led this USMNT actually is, not to mention poor final team roster selection and overall US player development. Remember: This is Ecuador we are talking about here. Not Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Brazil or Colombia.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, June 21, 2016 at 12:25 a.m.

    True, Ecuador is only ranked #13 instead of in the top ten. I think you are being too harsh on both teams.

  4. Claus Fischer replied, June 21, 2016 at 1:27 a.m.

    No, I am not. Ecuador was pitifully incompetent with finishing, though they created the necessary chances and corners. The US in the last half hour was abysmal. M. Bradley once more non existent and error-prone with every touch of the ball. Nine vs. nine field players for a third of the game is a field player's dream. In the modern game, one has no space to maneuver, the field dimensions leave the playing field too crowded. The athleticism of most players covers too much of the field. So this was a dream moment come true for someone like Wood or Bedoya. Maybe Johnson too. A chance on this level of play they will not see again anytime soon. Ecuador is now ranked as the least capable of the Copa America quarterfinalists (Behind Peru, Mexico, Venezuela - in that order). I wish USMNT fans would take off their rose tinted glasses. 13th in the world (what you reference) is a joke. That would mean Ecuador's national team are better than France, the Netherlands, Mexico and only a mere four points behind Italy. That is not just very doubtful, it is absurd. Only Antonio Valencia has time in a top world club team. (How does this compare with the players who compose the Dutch, Mexican, French, and Italian national teams?) Those Coca Cola FIFA world rankings are simply talking points. It would be a serious error to use any ranking of Ecuador to puff up a very barely scraped win by the USMNT in Seattle. (Just look at the passing rates -- pass completions over 90 minutes alone. Ecuador dominated this just like they outshot (on target) by 6 shots the USA.) All this ballyhoo about how good the US team is? Absurd.

  5. Jeffrey Organ, June 21, 2016 at 10:57 a.m.

    You are right Claus. The USMNT is absolute crap and we should completely dismiss this run to the Copa America semifinals as a ridiculous fluke. In fact I am so embarrassed by our undeserved good fortune, I believe we should dismantle the team and withdraw from FIFA immediately. That will put an end to all of this nonsensical and giddy "ballyhoo" infesting the country. Thank you for enlightening us. I am attending the game tonight and will make sure my section remains a ballyhoo free zone.

  6. Wooden Ships replied, June 21, 2016 at 1:17 p.m.

    Good retort Jefffrey. Cheer for me tonight as I'll miss the first half due to coaching my 6 year old grandsons baseball team. I've been doing a rain dance, but its not happening. Claus makes some obvious observations, but as Cap Weinberger stated during a DOD press conference, You Go To War With What You Have. I thought it was a ludicrous comment coming from him at the time. But, our 23 will battle and not remotely likely to fold like Mexico against Chile or Brazil vs Germany. They will play 90 to their best.

  7. Ginger Peeler, June 21, 2016 at 2:53 p.m.

    I am SO looking forward to this game tonight!! I just want us to play well. If we do that, it'll be a good game for me. WS, perhaps there'll be an understanding soul in the bleachers who will be watching our game (surreptitiously) on his/her smartphone who can pass on updates to you of our progress until you can get home for the second half? Good luck!

  8. Richard Brown, June 21, 2016 at 8:42 p.m.

    This article got me thinking about 2002 WC.

    We were pretty good in that beating Mexico in a game that mattered. German game was a hand ball by the german covering the left post. They missed that call.

    US v Argentina starts in a half hour. I always felt if we played a good game and lost we just ran out of time. Hard to feel bad about a loss like that. But it is better to win when you played a good game.

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