Copa America preview: Sounders’ Nelson Valdez leads Paraguay into opener vs Costa Rica
It’s Day 2 of the Copa America Centenario, and Sounders fans are probably looking for some optimism after the USMNT’s limp defeat to Colombia on Friday. There are multiple matches on Saturday, including the match being held in Seattle (Haiti vs. Peru, 4:30 p.m.) and Brazil vs. Ecuador at 7. But most intriguing to Sounders fans is probably the Group A matchup between Costa Rica and Paraguay. These are the other teams that are playing in the USA’s group, and fans can get an idea about both teams from watching this match unfold.
Kickoff: 2 p.m., Camping Worlds Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
A team that is perpetually close to greatness in CONMEBOL play, Paraguay reached the semifinals of 2015’s Copa but was destroyed by Argentina 6-1. It also reached the final of the 2011 tournament but was beaten 3-0 by Uruguay. Its World Cup record has been all over the place in recent years, with the team failing to qualify for the 2014 tournament in Brazil despite reaching the quarterfinals in 2010. This is a solid team with a decent record in the past year or so, with a handful of players with the potential to make things happen on the pitch.
• Sounders players: Nelson Valdez, the Sounders’ expensive but ineffective striker, went straight into the Paraguay squad for this tournament despite missing the last few matches for the Sounders with injury. He has by far the most goals in the current squad, but it’s been awhile since he’s scored one — the last time was in the 2015 Copa America against Argentina.
• Captain: By far the most experienced player on this roster, centerback Paulo de Silva has had a long career spent mostly in Mexico, with stints in England and Spain. He has 134 caps for Paraguay, and looks to continue being a stalwart throughout this tournament.
• One to watch: Dynamo Kyiv’s Derlis Gonzalez, who earned the Paraguay Footballer of the Year award in 2015, is a striker with a lot of potential who could make a name for himself in this tournament. If there’s any match that he could kickstart things in, it would be this one.
• Biggest weakness: A fairly tame midfield that holds little experience and few notable players could allow them to be run over by stronger teams. They’ll probably find themselves on even footing against Costa Rica, though.
One of six CONCACAF teams invited to the tournament, US fans will be pretty familiar with the team that the USMNT faces a few times every World Cup cycle and Gold Cup. There’s quite a bit of experience on this squad, with a number of players that have played in Europe and in MLS. Currently ranked at a respectable 25th in the FIFA world rankings, Costa Rica is a dark horse in nearly every tournament it plays in. They’re not a team to be taken lightly, and I see them as maybe even edging out Paraguay in this matchup.
• Sounders players: None, but Sounders fans will be familiar with (in a bad way) the Whitecaps’ Christian Bolanos and Kendall Watson.
• Captain: Probably one of Costa Rica’s most famous all-time players, Bryan Ruiz has spent nearly his entire professional career in Europe at clubs like Fulham in England, Twente in the Netherlands, and his current club Sporting CP in Portugal. Ruiz has 20 international goals to his name, and will likely be Costa Rica’s key playmaker in this tournament.
• One to watch: Despite having not lived up to expectations yet, Arsenal’s Joel Campbell already has 59 caps (!) and scored 11 goals for his country at age 23. His club career hasn’t really taken off yet, as he’s spent most of his time on the books at Arsenal being loaned out to clubs all over Europe. He’s still a dangerous player, and could seize the most of any opportunities that come his way.
• Biggest weakness: Similar to Paraguay, Costa Rica’s midfield has few notable players and could fold against a big team like Colombia. Today’s match will likely be decided by which team pounces on mistakes and opportunities, and strong attackers will be needed to take advantages of those instances. There’s a lot of experience in this midfield, but no real world-class talents. Expect Ruiz to drop deep often to help out, and he’ll need to pick up the creative slack and hope his fellow attackers can finish any of those chances.
Prediction: I think a tight win is possible, but the relative evenness of this matchup could finish it in a 1-1 draw. Costa Rica has the slight edge, but this one is really anyone’s game.