U.S. – Colombia open Copa America at Levi’s – San Jose Mercury News

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The prestigious Copa America Centenario kicks off June 3 at Levi’s Stadium with the host United States getting an early test against eighth-ranked Colombia in the summer’s biggest tournament.

While the Americans didn’t get a favorable group at the draw Sunday in New York, Bay Area soccer fans were big winners.

Three days after the United States opens the event in its first appearance in Levi’s Stadium, two of South America’s biggest rivals come to Santa Clara. The Group D blockbuster features second-ranked Argentina against No. 5 Chile, which defeated La Albiceleste in last year’s Copa America final.

Levi’s also will play host to a Group C game between No. 11 Uruguay and Jamaica on June 13. Jamaica could feature local favorite Simon Dawkins of the Earthquakes.

“You can’t really ask for any more big-time soccer in the Bay Area,” Quakes president Dave Kaval said. “The biggest names are coming here.”

None is bigger than Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the Barcelona FC striker who is the only player in history to win FIFA’s player of the year five times.

Colombia features such world stars as James Rodriguez, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado, while Uruguay has the talented but volatile Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

“These aren’t just friendly matches,” Kaval added. “These things count.”

The draw Sunday placed the 16 participants into four groups with No. 32 United States getting Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay.

The top two finishers in each group will advance to the quarterfinals, including a June 18 showdown at Levi’s featuring Mexico if it wins Group C. The semifinals are scheduled for Chicago and Houston, with the final June 26 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Ticket information can be found at CA2016.com.

The Americans face Costa Rica on June 7 in Chicago and end group play June 11 in Philadelphia against Paraguay.

“Obviously it is a challenge, but you’ve got to beat the best to win it,” Kaval said.

The tournament usually held every four years in South America is having a special edition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the championships. The event expanded for the anniversary and moved outside South America for the first time.

It’s the United States’ biggest tournament other than the World Cup. It has participated in past Copas as a guest from the North America, Central America and the Caribbean region (CONCACAF).

Organizers added six CONCACAF entrants to turn it into a championship of the Americas. All 10 South American teams are participating: Argentina, Bolivia, No. 6 Brazil, Chile, Colombia, No. 13 Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Those powerhouse teams also have lots at stake, particularly Argentina, which has failed to win a major championship since its 1993 Copa America victory. La Albiceleste finished second at the 2014 World Cup and ’15 Copa America with Messi leading the way.

Argentina also features stars Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and many more.

Brazil is another team soccer fans will be monitoring this summer. The five-time world champion has yet to recover from its embarrassing play at the ’14 World Cup held in Brazil. The Neymar-led Canarinho also got bounced in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Copa America by Paraguay, signaling an end to its dominance. The Brazilians, though, got what appears to be a soft grouping with Ecuador, Haiti and Peru.

Defending Copa champion Chile also is looking to remain among the Southern Hemisphere’s best teams with outstanding goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and offensive threats Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas.

Chile played Mexico at sold-out Levi’s Stadium in 2014 in the 68,000-seat facility’s first international soccer game. The stadium attracted another sellout last year for a Barcelona FC-Manchester United preseason match.

After the Copa America ends, the Bay Area will play host to the 2016 Major League Soccer All-Star game July 28 at Avaya Stadium that features Arsenal FC.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.

U.S. – Colombia open Copa America at Levi’s – San Jose Mercury News

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