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Copa America: A Brief History

With the UEFA EURO in Germany captivating the hearts, minds, and attention of soccer fans worldwide, the stage will soon be shared by the Copa América. The 16-team tournament kicks off tomorrow evening in Atlanta as defending tournament and world champions Argentina clash with debutants Canada at 8 p.m.

The quadrennial tournament will take place through 32 matches in 13 cities throughout the United States, which hosts the Copa America for the second time ever in the tournament's century-long history, the first time actually having been for its centennial edition in 2016. New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford will host three highly anticipated matches involving contenders to the title. The final will take place on Sunday, July 14, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

The Beginning

The first edition of the tournament was organized in Argentina in 1916 to celebrate the centennial of the nation’s first declaration of Independence from Spain. This was the first-ever event organized by the South American Football Confederation or CONMEBOL, from its Spanish acronym.

That edition was only disputed between the four Southern-Cone nations of Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, and the hosts, which the Uruguayans won after a round-robin. Crucially, this tournament, at the time known just as “the South American Championship,” predated the first World Cup by 14 years, which would also be won by Uruguay, although on home soil.

Over the years, the core ten teams that form CONMEBOL started getting invited to play in the championship, with Venezuela debuting last in 1967, most likely as a result of the country’s overall preference for baseball as a national pastime. The ten would remain the standard until 1993, when Mexico and the United States joined the tournament in Ecuador.

Unlike most other continental soccer championships, the Copa América never had a qualification system due to sheer numbers—there were just too few eligible teams for a qualification tournament. However, with world juggernauts Brazil and Argentina involved, inviting two more teams became a preferable option, as the two invitees and smaller CONMEBOL nations could sharpen themselves against each other while allowing for a group stage with four teams in each—mirroring the World Cup’s format, which is still basically what is in use today.

Expanding the Tournament

By logical convention, the Copa invitees were almost always from the North, Central American, and Caribbean region, or CONCACAF by its initials. In 1993, the choice of Mexico and the U.S. was ostensibly to reintegrate the Mexican national team after it had suffered a two-year sanction and was barred from the 1990 World Cup, as well as to offer preparation for a then-underdeveloped U.S. side as it prepared to host the World Championship in 1994. T

his trend would be repeated a couple of more times, with 2002 World Cup hosts Japan invited in 1999 and Qatar in 2019. To this day, Mexico’s second-place performances in 1993 and 2001 are the best by an invited team and the closest a non-CONMEBOL team has come to taking the cup home.

USMNT also has had its fair share of Copa América glory. The Stars and Stripes first played at the 1995 edition in Uruguay, making it to the semifinals with veterans from last year’s World Cup, such as Alexi Lalas, Chris Henderson, Cobi Jones, and Tab Ramos, coached by Bora Milutinovic, all considered to be important legends for the U.S. and its soccer development. The U.S. also reached the same position in the 2016 centennial tournament, which it played at home.

There, the squad led by Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard closed their careers, while current stars like Christian Pulisic and Ethan Horvath—who will both be at this year’s tournament—marked their first major tournament for the national team. The 2016 squad, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, made it up to the semifinals, losing to Argentina in Houston, and cemented USMNT’s position as a major contender in world soccer with the first generation of mostly European-trained club players.

Recent Developments

The last couple of Copa editions have seen dominance by traditional powerhouses, with Brazil winning at home in 2019 in captain Dani Alves’ final major national team tournament and Leo Messi’s 2021 win with Argentina, largely foreshadowing the team’s World Cup win in Qatar a year later. This year, the tournament is contended between 16 teams in an effort to include more CONCACAF nations ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which the U.S. is also hosting alongside Canada and Mexico. At an individual level, eight of the 14 stadiums will be hosting matches in 2026, for which this is an unofficial test run.

MetLife Stadium will welcome its second Copa América on Thursday, June 25 at 9 p.m. as Argentina and Chile face off in a Group A match replaying the 2016 final in the same venue where it happened. There, defending champions, Chile beat the blue-and-whites on penalties to secure their second title and deny Messi a third straight major national title. Two days later, Uruguay will play Bolivia for Group C in an anticipated match as the latter comes after playing the hosts, and the former gets ready to face them five days later in Kansas City.

Lastly, one of the two semifinals is set to be played at the Meadowlands on July 9, with the possible players coming from Groups A and B according to the predetermined bracket, meaning the United States will not play any match in the area regardless of how far they will advance in the tournament. The eight possible semifinalists would, therefore, be Argentina, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, or Venezuela.

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