The Copa America kicks off this weekend, and the American soccer media seem evenly split on whether the USA will manage to finish in the top two in the group and thus earn a berth in the quarterfinals. That’s about as far as anyone can see them going in the tournament, which matches the best international teams from North and South America. Virtually no one is picking the American team to earn a spot in the final four.
Given the amount of pressure that is being heaped on the national team, anything less than a semifinal berth will prompt a thousand criticisms — of coach Jurgen Klinsmann, of his bosses at U.S. Soccer, and of the structure of American soccer itself. For a nation that is competitive but does not have an outstanding soccer history, this seems very strange.
Given the team’s history, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the USA, which played Colombia on Friday night, failed to reach the semis. Since they qualified for the World Cup in 1990, the Americans have been at every World Cup but can count their victories there on one hand, with five in seven tournaments.
In three previous invites to the Copa America, the USA finished fourth once, and 12th out of 12 the other two times. It finished in the top three a couple of times at the Confederations Cup. The team has traded North American dominance with Mexico, an impressive achievement given Mexico’s storied soccer history. But apart from that, the USA is a little short on outstanding performances.
Over that period, though, American fans and media have gotten the idea that the upset victory is the natural state of American soccer. We remember the USA defeating Colombia and Portugal at the World Cup, and Argentina at Copa America, and Spain at the Confederations Cup. We remember World Cup draws with Portugal, Italy and England.
We forget about beatings at the hands of Poland, the Czech Republic and Paraguay. And that the USA under-23 team has failed to even qualify for three of the past four Summer Olympic tournaments
We remember the team’s last-second victory to win the group at the 2010 World Cup. We forget that it was against Algeria, a team that hadn’t previously made the World Cup since 1986. The pressure on the USA team is based on the expectation that there are more upsets to come, not on the team’s history of dominance.
In short, U.S. soccer fans, we are turning into England fans — always expecting greatness with nothing to base it on, and therefore are always unhappy with anything but unlikely glory. It wasn’t that long ago that we could enjoy the U.S. men’s national team as an entertaining underdog, rather than an expectation-laden disappointment. The team’s history hasn’t changed that much. We’ll enjoy this tournament a lot more if we instead change our attitude.
Copa America: Paraguay vs. Costa Rica, 4 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. With Colombia widely expected to top Group A, games between the other three teams in the group will take on extra importance, akin to a three-game mini-tournament for second place. Costa Rica is missing goalkeeper Keylor Navas, a key to its squad. He has an Achilles injury and won’t play.
Copa America: Brazil vs. Ecuador, 9 p.m. Saturday, FS1. Brazil has plenty of options when it comes to building a squad, but its most important piece — striker Neymar — is skipping Copa America to focus on winning Olympic gold in Rio this summer. Even with him, Brazil hasn’t been great lately. It sits a shocking sixth in South American qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Copa America: Jamaica vs. Venezuela, 4 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. Most soccer observers are looking past both of these teams in Group C, expecting Mexico and Uruguay to finish in the top two. The Reggae Boyz surprised the USA at the Gold Cup last summer. If one of these two sides is going to give Mexico or Uruguay difficulty, it’ll probably be Jamaica.
Copa America: Mexico vs. Uruguay, 7 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Argentina is the favorite in this tournament, but Mexico is the trendy dark-horse pick. The Mexicans have not only won 10 consecutive games, they haven’t even allowed a goal in any of their past seven, including friendly victories over Chile and Paraguay. Mexico will be the “home” team in every match. Can it win it all?
• MLS was chosen by FIFA to be one of six leagues to experiment with having a “video assistant referee” who can use instant replay. The VAR will be able to review penalty decisions, red cards, cases of mistaken identity and whether there is a foul in the lead-up to a goal. Given how often these decisions — especially penalties and red cards — can change the outcome of a match, anything that helps get them right is a positive step.
• Spare a thought for Atletico Madrid, which lost the Champions League final to crosstown rivals Real Madrid for the second time in three years. Atletico has been shockingly competitive on a tiny budget. But with head coach Diego Simeone rumored to be taking over at Paris Saint-Germain next season, you have to wonder if the magic can last beyond the end of Simeone’s tenure.
• My Copa America prediction: The USA will get out of its group but lose 1-0 to Brazil yet again in the quarterfinals. In the finals, Lionel Messi will finally get some Copa America glory, as he and Argentina will defeat Mexico 3-2.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. firstname.lastname@example.org.