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What to expect in the Copa America soccer tournament

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The Copa America soccer tournament kicks off tomorrow. The best countries from North and South America will compete in various host cities across the United States. The U.S. men's team hopes to use this opportunity as a trial run for the 2026 World Cup - to be played, by the way, in North America. But the U.S. team faces stiff competition.

For more, let's talk to Paul Tenorio, soccer writer for the athletic. Thanks for joining us, Paul.

PAUL TENORIO: Thanks for having me.

SCHMITZ: A golden generation - Paul, that's the name you've given to this particular U.S. men's team. What makes them so special in your eyes?

TENORIO: Not only are they a young team - they're a young team that is doing something different than any generation before them in American soccer, which is they're moving over to Europe and to top European clubs earlier and finding more success at bigger clubs. And that's caused fans to wonder - is this a team that is better than any we've seen before in American soccer? Shouldn't it be, considering the names of the teams that they're playing for? I think it's a bit more nuanced than that.

But there is no doubt, when you see players like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie and Tim Weah - you can go down the list of the names on this roster that are playing at clubs like AC Milan and Juventus and playing in the Premier League - that opens eyes for a new subset of fans and a real belief that maybe this team at a home World Cup in two years can make a run that the U.S. Men's National Team has never made at a tournament like the World Cup before.

SCHMITZ: So you just mentioned a bunch of individual players from the U.S. that are playing in the top leagues in the world. How do they play as a team - as a unit?

TENORIO: Well, I think that was the strength of this team going into the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. They were unproven on the biggest international stages. But when you look at the stats from the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar, they are much better on the ball. They play more attractive soccer. They like to keep possession. Their attacks are more dangerous. The field tilt, which is a stat that shows which side of the field, essentially, the ball is on more often, is further in favor of the U.S. than it ever has been in its history - and by a wide margin. So there's less of an intimidation factor and more of a belief that we can play with them. We don't just need to compete against them.

The job now at this Copa America and at the World Cup in two years is to take that one step further and show you can win some of these games against teams like England and the Netherlands or in the Copa America this summer against Uruguay in the group stage and potentially Brazil or Colombia in the first knockout after that.

SCHMITZ: The biggest name in Copa America, Lionel Messi - he and Argentina are the reigning World Cup champions, but that was, you know, nearly two years ago. He is now 36. He's been a hit in the MLS. I would never count out Messi, but to what extent can he still compete internationally with this new batch of young players?

TENORIO: I certainly think that he's going to be a big part of whatever Argentina does. And, you know, right now, when I look at the brackets, I think this tournament sets up really well for Argentina to make a run once again at another trophy. And if they do that, the final will be played in Miami - the city Messi now calls home, where his family lives, where he's finding this new balance in his life. And I think that could definitely be a big part of the success of Messi and Argentina in this tournament - that he is happy. He's enjoying himself. And, you know, as he said just last week, too, in an interview with ESPN Argentina, he's not ready to walk away from this yet. He's enjoying it as much as ever.

SCHMITZ: We will stay tuned. That's Paul Tenorio, soccer writer for The Athletic. Thanks, Paul.

TENORIO: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADANNA DURU SONG, "POP!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.