A Look at Copa America as the Tournament Heads into the Semis

Missed opportunities.  After missed opportunities.  After missed opportunities.  For a tournament that has not reached its potential, the same can be said for the powerhouses expected to cruise through, setting up the dream Brazil-Argentina final.

The group stage of a 12-team tournament has rendered itself officially meaningless to me.  Third place entry into the knockout stage makes one win out of three enough.  You ever see two guys fight at a bar over a girl?  Deep down, neither one of them want to be fighting, but they’re at this point, and have to.  And it’s never the dream fight that everyone has in their head.  It’s tentative, a little sloppy and horribly defensive.  Now add the fact that while the winner of the fight gets to take the girl home, there’s still a good chance the loser of the fight still gets to take the girl home if he shows up again tomorrow night.

That’s the Copa group stage for you.

But we’re beyond that.  Even if we look at them as warmup matches, surely, the slow start would have been enough to light a fire, much like the US was able to use the Panama loss as a wake-up call that they’re supposed to lose to Mexico in the final, not go out earlier.

Argentina and Brazil, oddly enough, are suffering from the same problems, and risk that continuing for the near future.  Both teams have seen old guard, veteran reliability slowly fade out, paving the way for new players, new talent, new leaders.  But no one’s stepped up.  Lionel Messi, while the best player in the world, is not proving to be the one to lead the team.  The choice leader, Javier Mascherano, has a reputation that precedes him (and gets him sent off a little easier, as that red card was a bit harsh).  Carlos Tevez, who had this tournament poised to prove himself among the world elite, squandered it, getting into his own head early on, and finding his form would suit the bench better, leaving room for guys like Aguero and Lavezzi to shine.  They did intermittently, but we never did see Argentina run on full cylinders, and no Messi magic could fix that.

Brazil’s problem is compounding, in that none of the bright, young stars that are the future of Brazilian soccer are stepping up just yet.  The average age of the 10 outfield players who lost to Paraguay was 25.2, and the defense was bringing up that average, mostly.  Robinho hasn’t truly proven himself to be the next legend in yellow, and from what I’ve seen, Neymar ain’t it (though he’s just 19).  Pato is fine, but ultimately, this team is not ready to handle the pressure of being the big dogs.  Going out on penalties was all too appropriate, after failing to find the net on countless occasions in the group stage.  So where’s their strength then?  Oddly enough, it’s their defense.  But you try to tell the Brazilian fans to play to that strength and see what they say.

Colombia and Chile failed to seize countless scoring opportunities (a combined 1 goal in 28 shots in their matches), and the unlikely team was able to capitalize and advance.  And now the semifinals are rematches from perhaps the two most entertaining group stage games: Uruguay vs Peru and Venezuela vs Paraguay.

We’re at a point now where South American soccer is poised for its next big team to emerge.  Not even Hugo Chavez could have predicted Venezuela’s dream run, but the baseball-first nation is quietly amassing a talented team capable of upsetting Paraguay if the same fire and taste for goal can pressure a collapsible defense.  If the teams haven’t learned their lesson, and keep playing with the excitement this tournament has craved, expect goals.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Uruguay.  Not to discount Peru, but Uruguay are the team best positioned to chip into the “big two” in CONMEBOL, and should find their way into the final next weekend.  Despite Diego Forlan’s continuing poor form (Man United fans will remember this all too well), the team is rallying around other supporting cast members, such as the emerging Luis Suarez, the threatening Maxi Pereira, and heroics from Fernando Muslera that will get him some looks from other clubs, if Lazio aren’t careful.  There’s a lot to like about this squad, and with Forlan at 32 years old, we’re already seeing that life without him may not be so bad after all.

Uruguay have lifted themselves up in support of a struggling talisman, something Brazil and Argentina haven’t really done this tournament.  And it’s made them the better team for it.  I’d just be terrified now if Forlan actually DOES find the net on Tuesday.

The match-ups:

Uruguay v. Peru – Tuesday – 8:45 pm EST

Venezuela v. Paraguay – Wednesday – 8:45 pm EST

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