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Copa América: Messi looks to repeat, U.S. hosts and what else to watch for

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy after beating Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final soccer match at Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, July 10, 2021. Messi and Argentina will try to win their third straight major title when they defend their Copa America championship while Brazil hopes 17-year-old Endrick will combine with Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo for success. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, File)
Bruna Prado/AP
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AP
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy after beating Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final soccer match at Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, July 10, 2021. Messi and Argentina will try to win their third straight major title when they defend their Copa America championship while Brazil hopes 17-year-old Endrick will combine with Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo for success. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado, File)

The oldest international soccer tournament in the world kicks off Thursday night – with Atlanta hosting Copa América's opening match at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Lionel Messi and reigning champion Argentina will start their defense against Canada in what could be the all-time great’s final international tournament.

The 48th edition of Copa América is being held across 14 U.S. cities. Though it is usually reserved for South American CONMEBOL teams, six teams from the CONCACAF region, in which Mexico and the U.S. play, will feature.

Do they stand a chance against the might of South American fútbol, or will Messi add another major trophy to his legendary career?

NPR’s Michel Martin talked to Jon Arnold, a soccer journalist who runs the newsletter Getting CONCACAfed, and who will be covering this year’s tournament.

Here’s what he’s watching for:

This could be Messi’s last international tournament

The Argentina and Inter Miami FC forward is nearing the twilight of his career. But Messi is not showing any signs of slowing down and his team are favorites to repeat as champions, Arnold says.

“Even though Messi is getting old in a soccer sense, he's still one of the best players in the world. He proved it in 2022 when Argentina won the World Cup. He proved it the year before that when Argentina won this tournament, the Copa América,” Arnold said.

What the U.S. Men’s National Team has to prove

Arnold says the pressure is on primarily for Coach Gregg Berhalter, who is hoping to lead the team into the 2026 World Cup, which the U.S., Mexico and Canada will host.

If things don’t go well, Arnold said, “then there's going to be plenty of people saying that they could do a better job and asking for a different manager. So I really think that the U.S. has a big chance to prove that they're on the right track. But you could also see a team that maybe needs a different direction.”

But does the USMNT stand a chance to win the tournament?

Arnold says he can’t quite see the U.S. knocking out Argentina or winning the tournament, but the team has improved.

“When you look at this tournament, it's Argentina and the chasing pack. But if the U.S. is in that pack, that's progress,” Arnold said.

What other countries should viewers keep an eye out for

Arnold says he’s excited to see Uruguay, Argentina’s neighbor.

“They're a small country, but they've really punched above their weight on the international soccer level,” Arnold said. “They're going to have games against the U.S. in the group stage, and then they'll likely play Brazil [or] Colombia in the next round. I think it's going to be a really fun team to watch if you want to go a little deeper than just the U.S.”

Invited teams from CONCACAF also might make for a more competitive tournament, Arnold says.

“The U.S., Mexico, even countries like Costa Rica and Panama have shown that they can compete with some of these bigger teams from South America in recent international competitions,” Arnold said. “So I do think it'll add an extra element of difficulty for a lot of the South American teams that want to lift their continental championship.”

What’s the structure?

The 16-team field is split into four groups. Each team will play three games in the group stage. The top two teams from each group will move on to the knockout stage.

The groups are:

Group A: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Peru

Group B: Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Venezuela

Group C: Bolivia, Panama, United States, Uruguay

Group D: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay

The final is set for July 14 at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

How to watch:

Matches will be broadcast on FOX, FS1 and FS2. Spanish-language broadcasts will be available on Univision, TUDN and UniMas.

Matches will also be streamed on the Fox Sports app and in Spanish on Vix+, Univision’s streaming platform.

The digital version of this story was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Obed Manuel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is a host of Morning Edition. Previously, she was the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she drew on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member stations.