Copa America predictions: U.S. group wide open, Brazil and Mexico to cruise
With the groups set for the 2016 Copa America Centenario, Tim Vickery predicts the eight teams that will advance to the knockout stages.
Group A: U.S., Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay
The Copa could hardly have a more dramatic start than a match between hosts U.S. and Colombia, one of the South American countries where this competition is likely to generate the most interest. In recent times Colombia have been followed by an impressively noisy set of fans and with so many Colombians based in the U.S., that is surely set to continue in June.
These two sides are the favourites to qualify although this might be the best balanced of the four groups.
Paraguay are notoriously resilient, and Costa Rica bring their 2014 World Cup pedigree to the dance. The question mark against the chances of the two CONMEBOL teams is whether they will be close to full strength. Paraguay coach Ramon Diaz has indicted that he will be experimenting with some youngsters, and the fact that Colombia have recently staged training sessions with a group of youthful, domestic players could be an indication that coach Jose Pekerman is thinking along similar lines.
If that happens, the balance shifts toward the two CONCACAF nations.
Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti, Peru
Brazil and Ecuador promise a fine start to a group where the matches are evenly split between the West and East coasts. The five-time world champions open their campaign against the sensation of South America's current World Cup qualifiers. A black mark against Ecuador is their recent record in tournaments: they were the only South American side in the last two World Cups not to make it out of the group stage, and their performances in recent Copas have been poor. Coach Gustavo Quinteros will be looking for something better from his men.
In Brazil, meanwhile, there is confusion about the availability of captain and attacking inspiration Neymar, with the Copa being overshadowed in the local mind by this summer's Olympic football tournament. Even so, Brazil are clear favourites to go through along with Ecuador. Haiti are seen as one of the weaker CONCACAF nations, and Peru may well bring an experimental squad.
>Group C: Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela, Jamaica
Mexico have been handed a low-key group that will immediately test the attacking intentions of coach Juan Carlos Osorio. His team may not be against the most attack-minded opponents. Jamaica played in last year's Copa in Chile, where they were never disgraced but looked very short of inspiration.
Venezuela, meanwhile, are in a state of turmoil. The country's top 15 players recently signed a letter protesting the directors of the local FA and making it clear that relations with coach Noel Sanvicente are strained. The coach has since travelled to Europe to meet the players and attempt some form of detente. But it is not yet known whether they will be available -- or be selected -- for next month's World Cup qualifiers. Venezuela, then, are something of an unknown quantity.
Uruguay, though, should be interesting not least because their Under-20 side is proving such an excellent production line for the national team. They are favourites to go through with Mexico, but with coach Oscar Washington Tabarez liking to fight from inside a trench, it will be fascinating to see if El Tri can break them down in the opening group fixture.
Group D: Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Panama
Argentina and Chile will meet in competitive action for the third time in a year. Their June 6 clash in Santa Clara is the least important of the three behind last year's Copa final and next month's World Cup qualifiers. Nevertheless it is full of interest, with Argentina eager to end their long wait without a senior title, and new Chile coach (and Argentine) Juan Antonio Pizzi needing some time to get to know his players and impose his methods. Argentina are clear group favourites.
Chile are in a state of transition, and Bolivia, one of South America's weakest teams, may well bring a squad of youngsters. The stage could be set, then, for Panama to make a breakthrough and announce themselves as CONCACAF's surprise side.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.