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A Comprehensive And Tastefully Belated Guide To The 2024 Copa América

A general view of pregame ceremonies before the CONMEBOL Copa America match between Argentina and Canada on June 20, 2024 at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire

The Copa América isn't the tournament it should be. Though it is the oldest international competition in the world (founded in 1916, it predates the World Cup by 14 years and the Euros by 44), and features the talents of the continent that historically has produced a freakishly high percentage of the sport's superstars, South America's championship has never been regarded with the same esteem as its European counterpart.

Part of the issue is structural. The design of the tournament has always been a mess. It has, at various points over its 100-plus year history, been held every single year, every other year, once every three years, and once every four years, often cycling between the different intervals from tournament to tournament without much rhyme or reason. Some fun facts to that end: two Copas were held in 1959, and eight years separated the 29th Copa, in 1967, from the 30th, in 1975. The format too has varied widely, from having one big round-robin table, to having two or three groups that then funnel into a title-deciding round-robin group, to having knockout rounds that are sometimes two-legged and other times one-offs. More fun facts: The final of the 1979 Copa between Paraguay and Chile was played across three legs. Paraguay won the first leg at home, 3-0, before Chile won its home leg, 1-0. Because the victor of the two-legged final was to be determined by points rather than goal difference, Paraguay and Chile then had to play a third match, hosted in Argentina. After 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, that third match finished a 0-0 draw, at which point CONMEBOL decided to award the final to Paraguay based on goal difference.

As you can see, consistency has not often been a priority here. One casualty of the tournament's structural jankiness has been its prestige even on the continent itself. For much of the Copa América's history, it has been treated by the competing nations, especially the glamor countries, as a sort of JV tournament used to get a look at some young and/or domestic players who are fringe candidates for roster spots with the full-strength national team. Meanwhile, the continent's established stars would spend that time either taking a well-deserved break from their European club seasons, or, if they were based in South America, focusing on their on-going club season, since Copas are traditionally held in the middle of the South American league seasons, which usually carry on playing while the tournament is being held. For instance, Pelé only played in one Copa América (Brazil in particular has traditionally not taken the Copa all that seriously), and Diego Maradona only played in three of the six that were held during his international career; neither of the two ever won it.

When you contrast the Copa América's erratic nature with the Euros' consistency, reliability, and global interest, you can see why the Euros are often considered "World Cups but without Argentina and Brazil" while the Copa sometimes doesn't even feature a full-strength Argentina or Brazil. This shouldn't be the case. South American soccer is amazing, and if taken as seriously as it should be, there's no reason why the Copa shouldn't be seen as the Euros' equal.

Fortunately, things do seem to be changing in that direction. Even though it's been a little silly how many Copas we've seen played over the past decade—the seven-year stretch between 2015 and 2021 alone saw a whopping four Copas—those tournaments' centrality to the Lionel Messi legend have written the Copa back into the greater story of the sport. I expect something similar to happen on the Brazil side. The longer Brazil's World Cup drought goes, the more important lifting the Copa will become as evidence of a potential turning of the corner, just as it did for Argentina, which should only increase the value of the tournament as it becomes more and more coveted by the most famous entity in soccer. The format has been pretty consistent since the '90s, and it has recently returned to the (correct) quadrennial timeline. The moment is ripe for the Copa América to ascend to its rightful place at that tier just below the World Cup, to become essentially a World Cup without Germany and Italy.

And this is where the U.S. comes in. I've long been of the opinion that America's best hope for becoming the best soccer country it can be, in both the men's and women's games, is for CONCACAF to tie itself more closely to South America. Competition with CONMEBOL countries should serve as benchmarks for how good the U.S. men's team really is, while also sharpening it to become even better. (The beneficial effect would work in the other direction in the women's game, with the CONCACAF teams sharpening the CONMEBOL ones.) What CONCACAF can offer in return is money, organization, and attention, which would help all the national team setups in this hemisphere grow. The Copa América—and this Copa in particular, as one that fully integrates CONCACAF—is the shining example of what could be. Let's hope this summer's edition lives up to it, and is the first (well, the second, after 2016's Copa Centenario) of many more similar Copas to come.

Group A

Argentina, Peru, Canada, Chile

Who Is Cool?

I may be very, very biased, but in my opinion Argentina is the coolest national team in the world. They have Messi. They have the coolest midfield in the game, made up largely (Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo De Paul, and Leandro Paredes all count) of a bunch of former No. 10s who've steadily dropped deeper into midfield over their careers but brought with them every ounce of the technical precision and free-wheeling creativity of their more advanced days, and also Enzo Fernández, who's somehow the second coming of both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. They have Cristian Romero, the best center back in the world (more on him later). They have Emi Martínez, the Jorge Luis Borges of the art of shithousery. They have Messi. I rest my case.

One thing I most appreciate about Argentina during Lionel Scaloni's time as manager is its commitment to playing expressive, expansive soccer. The international game trends toward conservatism, towards a type of onenilism where even the best and most loaded national teams focus most of their coordinated efforts on protecting their own goal, trusting that the individual talents of their attackers, even working in isolation, are strong enough to score a goal out of nothing and deliver a narrow win. To be fair, the strategy does work. France and England have gotten far at recent international tournaments playing it safe in this way, and you could also include recent Portugal teams (winners of Euro 2016) and the late-era, self-parodic Spain ones whose interminable, U-shaped possessions were bigger threats to fans' attention spans than to the opponent's goal.

Argentina, in contrast, wants to attack, to risk, to play. The rewards for Argentina's style of play, and the passion and joy it engenders in the players and fans alike, are well-established. The team entering the Copa this summer is almost identical to the one that made history in Qatar 18 months ago. They're favorites not only to win the Copa, but also to be the most exciting team to watch along the way.

Canada is the other team in this group I'd consider cool, though not for the reason most of the other cool teams in a tournament are cool. I don't find myself particularly compelled by Canada's style of play, which has always been built on hard work and, with new manager Jesse Marsch, will likely feature lots of high pressing. Most of the Canadian players are just kind of whatever, though both Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are awesome. The thing that is cool is the simple Canadaness of it all.

Like, Canada is in the Copa América! That's never happened before! That's amazing! They got to play against Argentina for only the second time in history! (The first was a 5-0 Argentina win in 2010. Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tevez, and Maxi Rodríguez (twice) all scored. Messi didn't play.) Their group is tough, as all four teams will expect to finish in the top two and make it to the knockouts, but the Canadians have a legitimate shot at going through and making a little run in the oldest international competition in the world! Regardless of what actually happens, the mere fact that Canada has gotten this far is enough for me to enjoy their summer.

Who Sucks?

Peru and Chile are similar. Both have strong recent histories in the Copa América; Peru has gotten at least to the semifinals in four of the last five Copas, while Chile were back-to-back winners of the tournament in 2015 and 2016, to go with a run to the semis in 2019. Both still feature key pieces from those successful Copas, which is maybe pleasing from a nostalgic sense but is bad for their sporting hopes; to name just a few of the over-30 crowd both teams are bringing to the U.S., you can expect to see familiar faces like Claudio Bravo (41-year-old Chilean goalkeeper), Paolo Guerrero (40-year-old Peruvian striker), Mauricio Isla (36-year-old Chilean defender), Alexis Sánchez (35-year-old Chilean forward), and Luis Advíncula (34-year-old Peruvian defender). I'm intrigued to see what the likes of Guerrero and Sánchez have left in the tank, but I'm not expecting much from them, and even less from their teammates.

One Star To Watch

Back to Cristian Romero, the best center back in the world. Romero's level right now reminds me of peak Virgil van Dijk. It's not that Romero plays like Van Dijk (Romero is a much more aggressive defender than the famously patient Dutchman), but, like VVD at that time, Romero seems to be clearly the best at his position on both sides of the ball. Romero's timing for the tackle, his instinct for when to charge forward and attack the attacker, and the force he puts into his challenges without fouling is outrageous. For someone who does as much slide-tackling has he does, it's a wonder he's not on the other end of bad red cards or goal-conceding errors more often. But what's just as remarkable as his defensive prowess is his work when his team has the ball. His long passing is exceptional, and his willingness to push forward to join attacks makes him a genuinely unique defender. Look at this run, cut-back, and pass on this Di María goal from a couple weeks ago:

Nobody does it like Romero, who is not only the best, but the best at everything.

One Young/Old Guy To Watch

At 35 years old, it's no surprise that Alexis Sánchez is no longer the tornado he was a decade ago at Arsenal. That player thrived on technical brilliance but also on inexhaustible energy reserves that allowed him to play at full tilt for 90 minutes straight. Today's Sánchez doesn't have the same tank as the younger one, nor does he have the same speed and agility that made him such a handful.

Even with the erosion of his physical traits, though, Sánchez has figured out how to continue playing at a high level. His style is the typical old man's game, which still features loads of technical brilliance while trading speed for guile and exuberance for wisdom. Proof that Sánchez still has more good soccer in his old legs came during the 2022-23 season, when he joined Marseille on loan from Inter and emerged as the team's best attacker, scoring 14 goals and playing three assists, a return few expected from the man many had already forgotten about.

Sánchez wasn't as productive back with Inter this past season, though he still did bring value as a dependable source of attacking thrust off the bench. He should be well rested for this summer, which could be the last of a career that has already made Chile's best player ever. – Billy Haisley

Group B

Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Jamaica

Who Is Cool? 

Group B is probably the least “cool” group of the Copa América. It’s fine, that’s group-stage tournament soccer, and even then, there is plenty of coolness to be found here. Ecuador is a team on the rise; Jamaica had a good Gold Cup last year, making the semifinals; Mexico is also here. But, with all due respect, fuck it, this is my blurb, so let’s take a look at La Vinotinto: Venezuela.

Venezuela is a weird country in relation to the rest of South America, the lone country on the continent where baseball is more important than soccer. As such, Venezuela generally enters tournaments expecting to be walloped by better, more storied sides, and their record in the tournaments that matter is … bleak; they are the only CONMEBOL nation to never make a World Cup—even Bolivia has made it! However, that poor World Cup qualifying record actually masks that Venezuela has been pretty solid in the Copa América since hosting in 2007. In the six tournaments including that one, Venezuela has made the quarterfinals four times, and one of those runs ended with a penalty shootout loss in the semis, to Paraguay in 2011. Despite some poor results in World Cup qualifying since nearly making it to the 2010 and 2014 editions, Venezuela turns up for the continental tournament pretty consistently.

This time around might be different, if only by design. Venezuela is, like fellow Group B member Mexico, in a transitional period, with the side leaning towards youth over the experience that produced those successful Copa runs. The star man here is likely still Salomón Rondón, the former West Brom striker who is now 34 but still scoring goals for fun, notching 10 goals in 21 matches for Liga MX’s Pachuca, as well as nine in seven during the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Elsewhere, Venezuela has Yangel Herrera, who finally ended his permaloan journey (he was contracted by Manchester City but played for five different teams on loan before settling in at Girona). He was a rock for that same Girona team as it finished a stunning third in La Liga, and he will be the stalwart in midfield for La Vinotinto.

Venezuela probably has the most variance of any Group B team, which is both exciting and terrifying. The team used to love parking the bus and letting Rondón steal goals whenever he could, but this version of the side is a bit more attacking, a bit more open. The results of that strategy have been positive so far, especially in World Cup qualifying, where La Vinotinto currently sit in a shocking fourth, with wins over Paraguay and Chile going along with draws to Peru, Ecuador, and somehow Brazil in Brazil. That’s not the type of result Venezuela has often pulled off in South American competitions, which should bolster their confidence, especially in a group where it could end anywhere from first to fourth.

I’m not going to sit here and argue that Venezuela is a dark horse for anything other than advancing to the knockouts. Unless it wins the group, it will likely see Argentina in the quarterfinals, and that match-up has been historically abhorrent for Venezuela (Argentina eliminated Venezuela in the quarters of the 2016 and 2019 editions of the Copa). Still, though, that would be a massive achievement for a country still hoping to get its sea legs entirely under it in South America. A good performance this summer could help La Vinotinto finally make a World Cup, which I will celebrate like nothing else, even if the 48-team field at the 2026 tournament makes that feat considerably easier.

Since my dad is in town for my birthday, I asked him to say a few words about Venezuela: “La Vinotinto is capable of a strong showing in Copa America; the quarterfinals are expected, and a trip to the semis is not out of the question. Venezuela plays a balanced game that is exciting, even against stronger teams, a welcome change to the more defensive style they use to play.

"I expect good performances from Yangel Herrera after his excellent season with Girona, wing back Jon Aramburu has gotten significant playing time with Real Sociedad, and, of course, Salomón Rondón is the key, as the veteran was probably the best player in Liga MX last season with Pachuca. Vamos Venezuela!”

I don’t know about the quarters being “expected,” but all of that sounds pretty cool to me.

Who Sucks? 

Remember that transitional Mexico side? They have been transitioning their way into the toilet since winning the 2023 Gold Cup. Since El Tri beat Panama 1-0 in the final, they have won three games: a penalty win against Honduras in the Nations League quarterfinal, a strong 3-0 victory over Panama in the semis of that same competition, and a 1-0 win over Bolivia in a friendly in May. Other than those wins, Mexico has struggled, losing 2-0 to Honduras in the first leg of that aforementioned quarterfinal, to Colombia’s B-team in a December friendly, to the United States (dos a cero) in the Nations League final, and then back-to-back June friendlies against teams in the Copa: an embarrassing 4-0 loss to Uruguay, and a 3-2 loss to a below-full-strength Brazil.

This Copa comes at an odd time for the traditional CONCACAF power, which might be alright, given that the focus will be more on building the talent pool back up ahead of the co-hosting gig at the 2026 World Cup. Gone are three stars of the recent past: None of Chucky Lozano, World Cup superhero Memo Ochoa, or Raúl Jiménez are on the squad. Instead, Mexico will rely on relatively unproven youngsters to make any noise this month. The early results from this strategy have not been great (see above), but this is still Mexico, so there are some players to watch. The best player here is likely Edson Álvarez, West Ham’s defensive midfielder who is both a rock in the center of the park and not particularly dynamic in his play. He’ll stop opposition attacks more often than not, but he doesn’t provide much going forward. Julián Quiñones, who was born in Colombia but naturalized for Mexico and plays for América, should provide some width and driven runs towards the backline. Luis Chávez of Dynamo Moscow can score free kicks, given Mexico a bit of danger near the box. Uh, I guess Mexico’s center backs are good enough, in Porto’s Jorge Sánchez and Almería’s César Montes?

It’s slim pickings here, is what I’m trying to say. Mexico is on a downswing right now, and it’s not particularly fun to watch. Any chance of avoiding an anonymous group stage exit will probably fall on the performance of Jiménez’s replacement at the tip of the spear, Santiago Giménez. The Feyenoord striker provides a spark for his club, scoring 23 goals last season, but he hasn’t translated those performances to El Tri (four goals in 27 matches). It’s possible that Giménez puts it together and gives Mexico enough juice that it not only advances, but does so in style, making this choice look foolish. But for now, based on recent results and all of the uncertainty of a generational shift on the squad, Mexico stands out as one of the more disappointing sides in the tournament, and will have to show a lot more than it has in 2024 to change that.

One Star To Watch

Moises Caicedo

Ecuador is the best team in Group B, and it might have the group's best player in Chelsea midfielder Moises Caicedo. While his first season with the Blues might be seen as a disappointment, mostly due to his ginormous €136 million price tag, Caicedo is a star in the midfield, and he will be key to how Ecuador wants to play on both sides of the ball. In defense, Caicedo has range to cover miles of grass, and he’s steady in his tackles and prescient in his interceptions. While not a traditional defensive midfielder, he can play anywhere in a midfield three or in a double pivot, thanks to his ability to break up attacks of any kind.

It’s his skill on the ball that will be crucial for Ecuador, though. This isn’t a team that will control possession all that much, and instead, it relies on counter-attacking quickly and feeding the ball to Enner Valencia, still trucking along at the age of 34. Caicedo will likely be the link between defense and attack in the midfield, and he’s more than up for it. In his debut season at Chelsea, Caicedo averaged 90 percent pass success on 66 passes per game, both elite statistics. As he was for Brighton before his big-money move, Caicedo was often employed in two equally important manners for Chelsea: He’s able to relieve pressure and break presses, and he’s also not scared to move up and create chances. While he only tallied three assists in 33 league games, he’s able to make the “pass before the pass,” so to speak.

Caicedo alone won’t solve the biggest puzzle for manager Félix Sánchez, who took over the team last March after a frankly disastrous World Cup at the helm of hosts Qatar (which included a loss in the opener to, who else, Ecuador). That puzzle is getting goals, as Ecuador is solid enough defensively to make a deep run into the knockout round. Caicedo will not score many goals on his own, that’s not really in his skillset, but his ability to be everything at all times for Ecuador’s midfield should help La Tri be dangerous in attack. His last club campaign might not show that he’s up for it, but he should be, and as Caicedo goes, so should Ecuador.

One Young/Old Guy To Watch 

Michail Antonio

Jamaica is not coming into this tournament at full strength, at least in attack. Leon Bailey, the Aston Villa winger who is the Reggae Boyz’ most skilled forward, is included in this squad, but his agent said last week that he will not be playing in the Copa, as he wants to take a break from the national team. That will leave most of the attacking orchestration instead to 34-year-old West Ham striker Michail Antonio, a relatively recent addition to Jamaica’s talent pool. Antonio was born in England and was even called up a couple of times by the Three Lions, though he never featured in a game. This allowed him to swap national team allegiances to Jamaica ahead of the 2021 Gold Cup, and his presence here will dictate a lot of how this tournament goes for his side.

Antonio is past his prime, to be sure, but he’s still one of the better strikers in the tournament. Measuring at 5-foot-11, he doesn’t have prototypical size—he’s not part of Big Lad Summer, that’s for sure—but he’s still a strong target for near-the-box play, and he’s more skilled than his resume might imply. While he’s not a prolific scorer in his own right, he is an elite dribbler at the striker position, averaging 2.36 progressive carries and 1.47 successful take-ons per 90 minutes over the last year. Since Bailey’s likely absence will rob Jamaica of much of its dynamism on offense, Antonio’s skill on the ball might be all that stops the team’s attack from becoming one-dimensional and static.

What happens once Antonio makes his moves is less certain. He’s not a 20-goal-a-season scorer, and he’s less clinical than someone who has stuck around as a Premier League striker for so long—he’s been at West Ham since 2015!—might be expected to be. Jamaica will struggle to score enough to take advantage of its defensive solidity, but if Antonio plays a bit against type and goes on a scoring run in the group stage, Jamaica might just have enough to make some noise in a very fair Group B. – Luis Paez-Pumar

Group C

USA, Uruguay, Panama, Bolivia

Who Is Cool?

Uruguay has been on an ungodly hot streak since Marcelo Bielsa took over ahead of the start of World Cup qualifying last May. La Celeste sit second in the table, boasting a pair of 2-0 wins against Brazil and Argentina (that country's only loss since the 2022 World Cup), and it comes into the Copa América with serious momentum, serious ambitions, and a seriously defined playing style. Bielsaball is back on the biggest stage the Americas have to offer, with the 68-year-old iconoclast leading a Uruguay team stocked with talented midfielders who can actualize his vision of how the game should be played: with aggression. When they lose the ball, they press like demons; when they attack, they do so directly, with venom.

That's a fun style to watch that worked in a Premier League context with Leeds, though I have always thought it is most effective at the international level, where patterns of play are less sophisticated and the skill level gaps between players are much more pronounced—the left back at Juventus will probably be about as good as the attacking midfielder; maybe a championship-less country like England will have such a dearth of defensive midfielders that they'll be forced to play a guy out of position. When Chile won the Copa América Centenario in 2016, Bielsa had already moved on, but they were still playing Bielsaball under Jorge Sampaoli, himself a high priest in the church of Bielsa. My point here is, we have seen this style work at this tournament, and 2024 Uruguay is way more talented than 2016 Chile.

Luis Suárez is back, for some reason. This team is no longer his—it's Darwin Núñez's and Federico Valverde's. The Liverpool forward and Real Madrid midfielder, respectively, are among the best in the world at their positions, and they'll be surrounded by talented players like Atlético Madrid's José Giménez, PSG's Manuel Ugarte, and Flamengo's Nicolas de la Cruz. You will note that Flamengo is not PSG, and, indeed, De la Cruz is a Bielsa guy, someone built to play this way, in this system. Uruguay has stumbled at the tournaments that matter in recent years, crashing out in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup and failing to even make a Copa América semifinal since they won it in 2011. This group has the talent and organization to win this time around, and they have the luxury of being in a very easy group.

The only other team worth taking somewhat seriously is the USMNT. Will the squad that stood chest-to-chest with Brazil, shaking Ronaldinho to his core, show up, or will we see the dumb-dumbs who sleepwalked through a 5-1 loss to Colombia? They have the talent to make something of themselves, and with Christian Pulisic in the form of his life, they should come into this tournament feeling reasonably confident. The Colombia wake-up call was jarring and could portend a short, forgettable run, but the USMNT is at home and should be motivated by what I think is the first bit of actual pressure it has faced in a long time. The Americans earned a draw against England in Qatar and crashed out when they were supposed to. Because CONCACAF is so bad, they are so rarely tested against the best teams in the world, and if they were to make fools of themselves here, they aren't so young anymore that this can be written off as Phase 1 of a long-term plan. The World Cup will be here in two years. They have to show themselves worthy of hosting it.

Who Sucks?

Bolivia is so bad, and Panama is only slightly better. La Verde has three players who play in Europe, and they do so in Switzerland, Russia, and with Barcelona's developmental team. South America is such a harsh region to play in that their recent record (2-10-1 in the last year) is not surprising, though one of their wins was a 1-0 against Andorra, and they allowed three or more goals six times. Panama handed Bolivia one of those losses. Los Canaleros are CONCACAF survivors, most recently seen knocking the USMNT C-team out of the 2023 Gold Cup and beginning their 2026 qualifying campaign with a pair of wins. Anibal Godoy is still around, and Panama's veteran-laden team will at the very least be a tough out. And yet: they suck too!

One Star To Watch

Darwin is one of the best pure strikers in this whole tournament, and he is easily my favorite to watch. He's a great athlete, a confident runner, and an occasionally brilliant, occasionally hilarious kicker of the ball. Darwin's best trait is his running. He always seems to sprint into the right position at the right time, timing his bursts and lunges perfectly. The problem, historically speaking, has been what comes next. The Liverpool forward has scored a ton of goals, though he is nobody's idea of clinical. I love this about him. I am neither an Uruguay fan nor a Liverpool supporter, but as a lover of hotheaded aesthetes who toe the line between genius and madness, he always has my attention. I will always remember him getting sent off in his second Premier League game, and I will also remember his incredible two-goal performance against Newcastle from the start of this past season.

Darwin played more and scored more for Liverpool in his second season with the club, and he boasts a great goalscoring record for Uruguay. In his team's last match, against Mexico, he scored his first international hat trick. Bielsa has played around with a bunch of different forwards, though he loves Darwin, and he'll play this entire tournament as the focus of Uruguay's attack.

One Young/Old Guy To Watch

In late December, news broke that Johnny Cardoso would be transferring from Internacional to Real Betis. At the time, Betis had some injuries in their midfield, and as exciting as the possibility of a borderline USMNT guy playing for one of the better teams in Spain was, Johnny seemed like he was mostly headed to Seville as a depth piece. Twenty-one-year-olds of high promise but middling pedigree like Johnny do not tend to move to one of the best leagues in the world and instantly start killing it. Johnny, however, bucked the trend. He sat on the bench for one game then immediately earned his first start as a Betis player in center midfield against Barcelona. Johnny went on to start 15 games for Betis, and was one of the club's best players through the second half of the season, adapting to La Liga even faster than he expected.

What is so impressive about Johnny is his confidence. He never seems rattled on the ball, and he wins it back with an imperious air, as him winning tackles was as inevitable as gravity. And he's right to feel that way: all the stats paint him as one of the best ball-winning and ball-progressing midfielders in La Liga, and he earned a nomination for La Liga Young Player Of The Year. He has 13 caps for the U.S., and while only Tyler Adams truly replicates his archetype, Cardoso has more potential than Adams and is, crucially, healthy at the moment. Central midfield is a somewhat crowded position group right now, with Adams, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and Gio Reyna all jockeying alongside Johnny for starting spots. He had the chance to really seize one against Colombia, and he struggled, though he also played against Brazil (which must have been an incredible moment for him, as he has spent almost his whole life in Brazil) and was great. He'll get time in this tournament, and I like that he gives the U.S. something nobody else really can. – Patrick Redford

Group D

Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica

Who Is Cool?

Aside from Argentina, I'd argue that Colombia is the coolest team in this Copa América. In terms of pure stylishness of play, Colombia is probably without peer at the moment. The Cafeteros have always produced good players, but where they've struggled in recent years is in putting their attacking riches to good use. Any country would kill for a generation that produced players like James Rodríguez, Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado, Juan Fernando Quintero, Luis Muriel, Carlos Bacca, and Duván Zapata, but figuring out how to squeeze those players into a single, balanced starting XI isn't necessarily the easiest task. When it worked, it worked extraordinarily well, as seen most memorably during that show-stealing performance at the 2014 World Cup. When it didn't work, it was a disaster, as seen when Colombia failed to even qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Most of the names from the previous golden generation are out of the picture. James is still there, but he's no longer the team's best player. The team now belongs to the group that came after the 2014 crew, and in particular Colombia's new shining jewel, Luis Díaz. And in manager Néstor Lorenzo, the Cafeteros have a manager who's figured out how to put together a team that maximizes its considerable attacking resources while still remaining responsible defensively.

A major funk in 2020 and 2021 during the qualification campaign is what kept Colombia out of Qatar a year and a half ago. Still, you could see things starting to turn around towards the end there. One thing that became clear was that Díaz was the team's star. He made this very clear during the 2021 Copa América, where he was arguably the tournament's most outstanding player as Colombia put aside its shaky form to make it to the semifinals. Since then, Díaz's position has been unchallenged, which has clarified who exactly the team should be playing for. Another important revelation towards the end of Colombia's bad run was that the team was not yet ready to move past James. While Colombia was in need of a generation change, it still needed the talent, intelligence, and creativity of James to help guide the way. Towards the end of the last World Cup qualification stage, Colombia started to build the team around Díaz and James, and to pair them with players who complimented their adventurous style rather than simply compensated for it, the team started to win. It came too late to get them to Qatar, but you could see the future.

Since Lorenzo took over the team in 2022, Colombia has been flying. His team is undefeated in 20 matches. Some of the more impressive of the 15 wins during that span were the ones against Germany, Brazil, Spain, and a 5-1 win against the USMNT a couple weeks ago. The team usually plays in an asymmetrical 4-3-1-2 that puts James where he belongs, as a No. 10 of the classic South American enganche variety, gives Díaz lots of freedom to play wherever he pleases starting from the left flank as a wide striker, and still leaves room for two more attackers, one a striker (who could be any of several in-form center forwards Colombia has on the roster), and the other Jhon Arias, a winger who plays as one of the wider of the three central midfielders. By going all in on this attacking, associative style, Colombia is playing some of its best soccer ever. Colombia has only won the Copa once, back in 2001 as hosts, and it's never looked better prepared to be crowned king of the Americas again than it is right now.

Who Sucks?

No matter what kind of odor-concealing backtracking he tries to do, Ronaldinho was mostly right when he slammed Brazil coming into this Copa América. This legitimately is one of the worst Brazil teams in generations. Granted, it's still Brazil; there are still fantastic players all over the pitch—one of them is currently the favorite for the Ballon d'Or for crying out loud!—but as a whole, I've never seen a less special Brazil than this one.

Traditionally, where Brazil has stood above every other country that plays the game is in the production of geniuses. For the vast majority of Brazil's history, it has at any given moment had several of the best and most exciting attacking players on the planet. I'm sure all of us can recall being awed by the sheer wattage of Brazil's star power in our younger days, since there is no greater converter of soccer fans than geniuses, and no greater producer of geniuses than Brazil. For a soccer late-comer like me, mine was the 2006 team of Ronaldinho, Kaká, Ronaldo, Adriano, and Robinho. Just the way Brazil teams, led by their magical attackers, were talked about back then made them seem larger than life.

Today's team doesn't have a single one of the kinds of stars that proper Brazil sides always counted by the handful. Neymar would count, but he's only recently returned to training after suffering a serious injury and thus wasn't called up. Vinícius should count, but for as amazing as he's been for Real Madrid over the past couple years, he's never been anywhere near as good when wearing yellow. Other than that, the entirety of Brazil's roster is filled with good, even some very good players, who nevertheless can't hold a candle to the geniuses of yore.

It doesn't help that Brazil hasn't played a particularly attractive or individual-empowering style for a long while now. Former manager Tite became increasingly conservative as the years went on during his long tenure, as he sought to follow the France/England model of onenilism, putting together tight and strong and well-worked outfits that relied mostly on Neymar to scratch together enough inspiration on his own to lead the team to glory. The tactic didn't work, however, and the team has struggled to define itself since Tite left his post after the 2022 World Cup.

Now, Brazil is still a very formidable team. They are rightfully considered one of the two big favorites to win this Copa, and it would be no surprise if they go on to lift the trophy by the end. But even if they do win, and Vinícius finally translates his club form into Brazilian Portuguese, it's hard to see how they could do so in a way that recaptures the essence of the country's soccer tradition. For that task, Brazil needs geniuses, and there simply do not seem to be any in sight.

As for Paraguay: Can you believe Miguel Almirón is 30 already? He's still cool though, and so is Julio Enciso. But two guys don't make a cool team. For Costa Rica: No Keylor Navas, no party.

One Star To Watch

I'm hoping Vinícius makes the leap here. Kylian Mbappé is the best player in the world, but Vini is the game's most consistently and relentlessly effective force. Vini always makes his presence felt in the biggest matches and moments, something that his ostensible peers like Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham, and, to a lesser extent, Mbappé haven't managed with the same consistency.

People have sometimes pointed to Neymar to explain why Vinícius hasn't brought that same energy to Brazil's play, the argument being that Neymar's gravitational force drowned out Vini's. This was always a dumb line of thinking (Neymar's unique genius is in part found in how well he plays with others), and it's irrelevant now that Neymar won't be on the pitch. Vini certainly has more than enough ability to carry Brazil to the title, but it's high time he actually shows it.

One Young/Old Guy To Watch

James Rodríguez will turn 33 before the Copa América is over, and it's hard to shake the notion that his career hasn't been what it should've been. He appeared destined for the top back in 2014, coming away from that star-making World Cup with what looked like a stardom-sealing move to Real Madrid. And while James has shined as brightly as anyone during specific moments in the decade since the summer of 2014, the overall effect has been disappointing.

His first couple seasons in Madrid were good, but he quickly lost his position of prominence as the club followed its tradition by heaping star after star after star into the same positions James played. James then just kind of floated around, making not infrequent but hardly memorable appearances for the Blancos, spending a couple seasons on loan at Bayern Munich that also failed to get him back on track, before landing at Everton in 2020, back in the hands of Carlo Ancelotti, the one coach in Europe who seemed to best understand him as a player and person.

The Everton James was probably the best James we've ever seen. Because of his sweet left foot, adept as it is at thundering strikes at goal and feathery passes inside the penalty box, James has often been used as a forward, someone who specializes in the final third. But his actual talents and preferences were always much more broad than that. It was at Everton where he could play as a true attacking midfielder—emphasis on that second word—accompanying the ball all over the pitch and spreading his influence along with it, until everything that happened in a match bore his fingerprints. The Everton James was James at his most unshackled. Sadly, it didn't last long. After one season, Ancelotti went back to Real Madrid, and James, without his mentor around, had no reason to remain a Toffee, and so the brief, bizarre, but glorious era that saw two greats of the game come to a club like Everton was over.

James hasn't found a happy home at club level since. First he went to Qatar because he couldn't find anyone else to take over his salary upon leaving Everton, and that didn't go well. He finally found his way back to Europe via Olympiacos in 2023, but that didn't go well either. After a season in Greece, he moved to São Paulo in Brazil, which—surprise!—hasn't gone well. He's now on the verge of leaving his Brazilian club in acrimonious fashion.

It's unclear whether we'll ever again see the best James at club level, and even if we do, it won't be in a league worthy of his abilities. But where we can still see a great James is with Colombia. Lorenzo also has James playing as a true attacking midfielder, not simply as a forward but as a link between the midfielders and the forwards, and he's reaping the benefits. James has always turned up when playing for Colombia, even when, during his lost years in Qatar and Greece and Brazil, his club career was so unstable that his place in the national team was no longer assured. The James we'll see this summer is likely the best James the greater soccer world will get to see for the rest of his time playing the sport, and I for one am determined to savor it. – Billy Haisley

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