Copa America Group C: Home crowds to help Mexico charge into knockouts
The Copa America is set to kick off, and Group C featuring Mexico, Uruguay, Jamaica and Venezuela promises to entertain. Here is what to expect.
At first glance, most would peg Mexico and Uruguay as the favorites to advance out of the group, but underestimating Jamaica and Venezuela would be an egregious error. Venezuela have young and exciting options in attack, and Jamaica have shown that they can compete with anyone thanks to solid performances at last summer's Copa America and Gold Cup. Mexico boast a wealth of options in attack, with youngsters like Hirving Lozano and Jesus Corona complementing veteran forward Javier Hernandez and captain and midfield general Andres Guardado. Uruguay will be armed with their anchors in the back in Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, and Luis Suarez, suspended during last summer's Copa, will be out to make up for lost time, assuming he's fit.
Must-see game: Uruguay vs. Venezuela
While Mexico vs. Uruguay is probably the match that will draw the most attention, its timing may result in a contest that is far more tepid. With the two favorites set to face off on matchday one, you get the sense that they might as well sign off on a draw right here and now. For that reason, Uruguay vs. Venezuela on matchday two feels as if it will be the more pivotal affair. The two CONMEBOL rivals know each other well, and if Venezuela can grab a win in their first contest against Jamaica, they will feel confident that they can get a result against Oscar Tabarez's men.
Key player: Edinson Cavani, Uruguay
A strong performance from Edinson Cavani is crucial for Uruguay. Suarez's ill-timed injury in the Copa del Rey final will place a greater burden on the shoulders of the PSG man, whose temper got the better of him in last summer's Copa America quarterfinal against Chile. The former Napoli man is riding a hot streak heading into the tournament, with five goals in his last four appearances with the French champions, and Uruguay will need that momentum to carry into the Copa. Luckily for Cavani, the strength of Uruguay's defense means that one goal may well suffice to walk away with all three points in any of their three group matches.
Dark horse team: Venezuela
Although their history in World Cup qualifying is abject (they've never qualified for a World Cup), Venezuela have shown in recent editions of the Copa America that they are a formidable foe in regional competitions. Quarterfinalists in 2007, fourth place in 2011 and 1-0 winners over Colombia in last year's group stage offer enough proof that the Vinotinto can throw a few wrinkles into the plans of opponents. The talent is there for coach Rafael Dudamel; striker Salomon Rondon of West Brom is a handful for any defense, 18-year-old Adalberto Penaranda scored four goals at Granada this past season, and captain Tomas Rincon brings experience in the midfield. This is not a team to overlook.
Prediction: 1. Mexico, 2. Uruguay, 3. Venezuela, 4. Jamaica
Buoyed by what will surely be home crowds in Phoenix, Pasadena and Houston, Mexico should charge into the quarterfinals relatively untroubled. El Tri have all the ingredients to make a deep run in the Copa America, and maybe even win it, so they should handle this group with relative ease in front of their usual adoring fans in the U.S.
Uruguay, for their part, always seem to answer the call no matter the situation. The trust that the players have in Tabarez is infinite, and with Godin and Gimenez in defense, getting any kind of result against El Celeste will be a monumental task.
While Venezuela have some spark in attack, the defense is an issue, evidenced by the 17 goals allowed in World Cup qualifying through six matches. Jamaica earned a great deal of respect in last summer's Copa, even though they failed to win any games. The Reggae Boyz were 1-0 losers in all three matches to Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, and then rode that to a run to the Gold Cup final. Nevertheless, Winfried Schaefer's men have struggled of late in World Cup qualifying and lack options up front.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .