Can the USMNT Prove They are Among the World’s Best at Copa América?

Marcelo Bielsa, Giovanni Reyna and Gregg Berhalter. Composite: Getty/The Guardian Sport
Marcelo Bielsa, Giovanni Reyna and Gregg Berhalter. Composite: Getty/The Guardian Sport
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Can the USMNT Prove They are Among the World’s Best at Copa América?

Marcelo Bielsa, Giovanni Reyna and Gregg Berhalter. Composite: Getty/The Guardian Sport
Marcelo Bielsa, Giovanni Reyna and Gregg Berhalter. Composite: Getty/The Guardian Sport

The theory always was that what the USMNT needed was for more of their players to be playing with the best in Europe. Good, tough, regular competition, proper professional training, exposure to best practice at the highest level the game has ever known. That was what would transform the raw material the US produces into a genuinely top-level side that might be able to compete regularly with the world’s elite. Practice is never that straightforward.

The friendly against Colombia earlier this month was the first time the US had been able to field a starting XI all of whom play in the top flight of the Big Five European leagues (there’s a quibble over whether France can really be included in that grouping or whether Portugal or the Netherlands is more worthy, but let’s go with it for now as a useful shorthand to denote high European level). Was this then to be the breakout, the moment at which the US finally became a major world power in the men’s game?

There’s no sugar-coating that performance or that result, much improved as Colombia may be from the side that failed to qualify for the last World Cup. It was a mesmerizingly bad performance; it’s been a long time since the best teams have been dismantled by James Rodríguez or Juan Quintero, both of whom found a bewildering amount of space. But that doesn’t undermine the basic logic: the more players a country has operating at the highest level, the better it is likely to be. The problem – as countless South American and African sides have found over the years – is that players accustomed to the best may look at a domestic coach with a degree of disdain. Gregg Berhalter has been the USMNT head coach for seven years across two stints. The US have never been able to field more talent, but under Berhalter they have failed to notch a win over a Top 25 side in Fifa’s rankings outside Concacaf.

Before the Colombia debacle, things had been looking up for Berhalter. The spat with the Reyna family seems over, to the extent that Gio Reyna was named player of the tournament at the Concacaf Nations League, while victory in that tournament to some extent assuaged the disappointment of the semi-final elimination at the Concacaf Gold Cup last year. But the question now, with a home World Cup looming in two years, six years after the failure to qualify for a World Cup, is whether the US is any better equipped to compete with the world’s best than it was last time it staged a 16-team Copa América, in 2016.

The format of this year’s Copa, which starts on Thursday, makes a lot of sense. If you were starting afresh, you’d almost certainly not have two separate confederations covering the Americas. Conmebol has struggled for a long time with finding a viable structure for a tournament to incorporate its 10 members; inviting six Concacaf sides to create a format with four groups of four is by far the neatest way of doing it. Formalising that for a regular tournament of the Americas, with proper qualifying, seems sadly improbable, but it has a lot of benefits, not least the TV markets of the US and Mexico.

The top Concacaf sides benefit too, exposing them to competition with a higher level of opposition than is possible in the Gold Cup. It’s one thing to have players spread across Europe – 15 of the 26 in Berhalter’s squad are at top-division sides in Europe’s Big Five leagues; the next stage is to have them playing together against leading nations. The concern about a 16-team Copa América is how few countries could successfully host them; the US may work financially but it’s not good for Conmebol if the tournament is regularly hosted outside its boundaries.

In 2016, the US beat Costa Rica and Paraguay to top their group despite losing to Colombia and overcame Ecuador in the last eight before a 4-0 defeat to Argentina in the semi-final. This time, the draw has been relatively kind. Panama are familiar opponents, while Bolivia have had a dreadful start to World Cup qualifying, losing five out of six, although their one win did come after a change of coach, Antônio Carlos Zago coming in for Gustavo Costas.

Uruguay are a different matter altogether. Marcelo Bielsa has worked his familiar magic, forming a new side around the spine of Ronald Araújo, Federico Valverde and Darwin Núñez, whose energy and determination in the press seem to matter more than his lack of precision in front of goal. They have beaten both Brazil and Argentina already in surging to second in World Cup qualifying.

It’s Argentina who are top, still inspired by Lionel Messi, and they remain the likeliest winners of this Copa América, with Brazil searching for direction after Dorival Júnior was belatedly appointed as coach. Colombia perhaps have an outside chance of winning a second title. In terms of tournament progression, that’s not great news for the US, with Brazil or Colombia likely to come in the quarter-finals. In terms of gauging standards before the World Cup, though, that represents a serious test.

The Guardian Sport



Buoyant Hamilton Seeking to Keep Momentum and More Records

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Formula One British Grand Prix at the Silverstone motor racing circuit in Silverstone, central England, on July 7, 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Formula One British Grand Prix at the Silverstone motor racing circuit in Silverstone, central England, on July 7, 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)
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Buoyant Hamilton Seeking to Keep Momentum and More Records

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Formula One British Grand Prix at the Silverstone motor racing circuit in Silverstone, central England, on July 7, 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Formula One British Grand Prix at the Silverstone motor racing circuit in Silverstone, central England, on July 7, 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)

A buoyant Lewis Hamilton heads into this weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix on the crest of a wave, seeking a record-increasing ninth Hungaroring victory and Mercedes' third consecutive win of the season.
After two years of struggles, Hamilton ended his long winless run at the British Grand Prix with a record ninth home triumph at Silverstone and hopes to repeat that feat in forecast intense heat at the track where last year he secured his most recent pole position, AFP said.
Following his emotional success in front of an adoring crowd in the English rain, Hamilton said he felt excited at the prospect of returning to a track where he has scored several memorable victories in his career.
"I love Hungary," he said. "And so I am definitely looking forward to going there. The trajectory we're now on and the fact that the car is starting to really, really come alive and feel great. I can't wait."
The 39-year-old seven-time world champion won at the Hungaroring -- a tight, twisty and often dusty circuit 22 kilometers north of Budapest -- in his debut season for McLaren in 2007 and again in 2009 and 2012.
After switching to Mercedes, he continued to relish the unique challenge of a track often described as 'Monaco without the walls' and won again in 2013, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
If he secures a podium finish this Sunday, it will be the 200th of his career, a pole position would be a record-extending 10th, landmark achievements that set him apart as he bids to add to team-mate George Russell's victory in Austria and his own in Britain.
He and Russell know, however, that they will not be favorites despite their recent successes as defending three-time champion Max Verstappen of Red Bull bids to complete a hat-trick of Hungarian wins after triumphs in 2022 and last year.
"Last year was brilliant," said Verstappen. "I have good memories of racing here and last year achieved our 12th win in a row. So, hopefully, we can have a great race again."
Midway point
The Dutchman leads the title race by 84 points ahead of nearest rival and friend Lando Norris of McLaren as the season crosses the midway point after 12 of the scheduled 24 races.
Team boss Christian Horner expects a close scrap.
"It's going to be interesting to see how we perform there," he said.
"It could be very hot and I think it will be the usual people who are quick at the moment and it will be very, very close again."
That suggests Horner considers Red Bull will be fighting with McLaren and Mercedes on recent evidence, but with Ferrari likely to return to form on a tighter circuit –- not unlike Monaco where Charles Leclerc gained an emotional home win in May.
With the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps following immediately, within a week, the double-header offers an opportunity for teams to make a telling impact before Formula One takes its annual 'summer shutdown' during August.
This will translate as more pressure for struggling Sergio Perez of Red Bull who is hoping to escape a nightmare run having scored only 15 points in his last six outings since agreeing a new contract.
Ferrari are also in need of a solid result from Leclerc but have struggled with a recent upgrade package that failed.
"When you're at the sharp end, it's all marginal gains," said Horner. "Mercedes were very quick at Silverstone, took pole and the front row and then executed a good race... at least Lewis did."
His Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff admitted: "We have momentum and gained headline results in Austria and at Silverstone, but we don't yet have a car to challenge for victories every weekend.
"The Hungaroring is very different in character to the last two circuits. We will focus on doing the best we can and hope to maintain our trajectory."