The U.S. Men’s National Team just got a better idea as to what road it will have to take at the Copa America Centenario, and chances are it will not be easy.
The remaining three team pots for the commemorative tournament in the U.S. were announced on Wednesday morning ahead of Sunday’s draw in New York City, and there was no need to begin toying with draw simulators to see just how challenging it might be for the Americans to reach the knockout phase this summer.
Truth be told, Jurgen Klinsmann and his players are almost assured of having a difficult group. There is a chance that they could earn a favorable draw, but it is a slim one that would require the soccer heavens to smile down on the U.S. and pair it with the traditional welterweights of each confederation, Haiti and Bolivia.
What is more realistic is the seeded U.S. being paired with a stronger CONCACAF nation and a more talented but still beatable CONMEBOL country. The other three CONCACAF teams in Pot 3 are Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica, and the remaining CONMEBOL sides that comprise Pot 4 are Peru, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Pot 2 is where the Americans should get their stiffest challenge of the group stage. There is no sure-fire victory – if there is such a thing – against any of Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Ecuador. In fact, drawing Ecuador, who is historically the weakest of the bunch, would be extremely tough.
La Tricolor is currently perfect at 4-0 and in first place in CONMEBOL’s World Cup Qualifying campaign, and has done more than just beat up on the poorer teams of its region. Using the goal-scoring prowess of Espanyol striker Felipe Caicedo and its other players’ combination of athleticism, speed and power, Ecuador has knocked off Argentina on the road and Uruguay at home in addition to topping Bolivia and Venezuela.
Chile, despite its recent change at head coach, would also present a steep challenge for the Americans. The reigning Copa America champion is currently in the midst of playing with its deep golden generation, one that includes players like Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and Claudio Bravo.
Colombia and Uruguay also have great individual talents like James Rodriguez and Luis Suarez, but the two nations have not always been consistently solid since the end of the 2014 World Cup. They are still, of course, capable of turning it up and producing quality play, but the U.S. should have a better shot at grabbing a result against one of them than it does vs. either Ecuador or Chile.
As for Pot 3, it is crystal clear that the Americans will want to avoid drawing Costa Rica. Haiti would be the preferred choice here, but even improved nations Jamaica and Panama should be beatable so long as Klinsmann’s side avoids a 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup repeat and plays to its potential.
In Pot 4, the U.S. will want to steer clear of Peru. Some observers might think it is Paraguay that is the side worth avoiding given where the nation sits in the World Cup Qualifying table in contrast to Peru, but that fails to take into consideration the significantly easier schedule the Guaranies have had and that their sputtering attacking has only scored three goals in four games.
In fact, the Peruvians – who are an enigmatic bunch equally as capable of producing moments of brilliance as they are of embarrassment – beat Paraguay in both their World Cup qualifier in November and in the third-placed match at last summer’s Copa America. Yes, Peru has lost three times in four qualifiers, but those defeats came at the hands of Colombia, Chile and Brazil.
That leaves Venezuela and Bolivia for the U.S. to hope for, and the Americans should want the latter. Bolivia has the history of previously reaching World Cups, but Venezuela has leapfrogged La Verde by finishing above it in each of the past three qualifying cycles.
So what might be the absolute best draw that the U.S. could land on Sunday? Uruguay, Haiti and Bolivia would be pretty ideal. Uruguay is the most defensive-minded team in Pot 2, and Haiti and Bolivia’s squads are nowhere near as deep or talented as the one the Americans currently boast.
As for the worst? A nightmare scenario would include Chile, Costa Rica and Peru. Chile showed last year that it has what it takes to make a deep run in tournaments, and Costa Rica and Peru both have enough skilled players to trouble the U.S.
Anything in between those two scenarios would still present a pretty challenging group, meaning the Americans will likely have to play to their best in order to secure a top-two finish that would push them into the quarterfinals of the tournament. There are no best third-place teams that advance in the Copa America Centenaro, so starting the competition by performing well and picking up points is vital.
It will not be easy by any stretch. Well, not unless Lady Luck chooses to be more than kind to the U.S. on Sunday.