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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Copa comes to Philly: Who to watch in Copa America

Copa America Centenario, that thing that MLS writers have been filling your Twitter timeline with lately, is coming to Philadelphia starting this week. Three matches will be held at Lincoln Financial Field over the next week. Uruguay takes on Venezuela this Thursday. Trophy holders Chile take on CONCACAF foe Panama June 14. And sandwiched in between is the marquee date, USA vs. Paraguay, Saturday night.

The Stars and Stripes coming to Philly needs little extra billing, even if it’s just to give Jurgen Klinsmann an old-fashioned Philadelphia welcome. You’ll recall that Team USA was here last summer, playing in the wrong game at the conclusion of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a dismal loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park.

This tournament has been billed, by Philly-area spokesman Kobe Bryant and others, as the biggest tournament the U.S. has hosted since the 1994 World Cup. So why should you care about what’s happening in Philly? Here are five stars to keep an eye out for at the Linc.

Philadelphia-area fans will hope Luis Suarez, right,
leaves the bench Thursday in Uruguay's game at the Linc. (AP)
Uruguay: Luis Suarez. You’ve got so many choices on a team full of stars. There are a half-dozen holdovers from that run to the World Cup semifinals in 2010 and their victory in this tournament in 2011 (their record 15th capturing of the crown and fourth since rebranding as Copa America in 1975). Followers of European soccer will recognize Edinson Cavani from Italy and France, the goalkeeping of Fernando Muslera and Atletico Madrid stalwart Diego Godin at center back. But Suarez, the Barcelona and former Liverpool man, is the headliner, as much for what he does with the ball as his incorrigible antics without it. Suarez was injured in the Copa del Rey final two weeks ago, which kept him out of Uruguay’s opener with Mexico, a 3-1 loss Sunday. With Uruguay facing a must-win against one of South America’s least illustrious clubs, coach Oscar Tabarez could really use Suarez’s attacking edge.

Venezuela: Christian Santos. There aren’t a lot of household names on Venezuela, beyond West Brom center forward Salomon Rondon and the Italian-based duo of Josef Martinez and Tomas Rincon. Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, who plays for French club Nantes, is a teammate of former Union striker and countryman Fernando Aristeguieta (who isn’t on the squad) and former Union target and American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, if you’re looking for local ties. But the timelier one is Santos, who was revealed to be on the Union’s discovery list a few weeks back. The 28-year-old wing forward, who didn’t play in the opening win over Jamaica, was raised in Germany and scored prolifically for Dutch club NEC, which Union technical director Earnie Stewart will be familiar with. He’s an intriguing case who is reputedly out of contract after his option year with NEC expired, and he fits the rough profile of the kind of player who can flourish in MLS if the price is right.

Union fans could get a chance to see reputed transfer target
Christian Santos, right, play in Philly Thursday. (AP)
Paraguay: Justo Villar. This isn’t the golden generation that made the 2011 final. Coach Ramon Diaz names a young squad with just three holdovers from that final (five before injuries). Only four players on the squad – five if not for an injury to Roque Santa Cruz – have more than 35 caps, including Seattle forward Nelson Valdez and Mexican-based defender Paulo da Silva. Approaching his 39th birthday, the captain Villar is a national legend who could be in his last major tournament. Villar is still capable of the fantastic save, as Colombia found out, and he’s the biggest impediment to the U.S.’s hopes of a result.

Chile: Arturo Vidal. Everybody knows Arsenal forward and high-shorts-haver Alexis Sanchez. So look past the goals and recognize that this Chile squad, which won last year’s tournament on home soil, is loaded with talent. I mean, loaded. Ten of the 11 starters from last year’s final were included in the 23-man roster for this tournament, including Barcelona goalie Claudio Bravo, Inter defender Gary Medel, German-based forward Eduardo Vargas, and the fun-to-stay duo of Jean Beausejour and Charles Aranguiz. But Vidal is one of those players whose brilliance is overshadowed by the distorting gravitational pull of English football. A star at Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Bayern Munich, the gritty midfielder is a throwback, mixing tackling bite, box-to-box intensity and a tidy touch in front of goal. He’s the type of player who can inflict his will on a game and, I suspect, is even more impressive to see in person when his control isn’t limited to the camera’s view.

Panama: Gabriel Gomez. The only CONCACAF team besides the U.S. to visit Philly, Panama brings plenty of names familiar to MLS fans. The San Jose duo of Alberto Quintero and Anibal Godoy were just here, Vancouver (formerly Dallas) forward Blas Perez is a frequent nemesis, and goalie Jaime Penedo (L.A. Galaxy) and Gabriel Torres (Colorado) used to call MLS home. Felipe Baloy is a long-time captain, but Gomez is the only player on the six teams with strong ties to Philly given his 2012 season spent with the Union. The relic of the Peter Nowak empire remains the franchise’s all-time single season leader in goals by a midfielder (though Chris Pontius will join him on that mark with his next goal, depending on where you peg him positionally). Gomez is Panama’s leader with 121 caps entering the tournament.

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