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.