The Copa America Centenario comes to a close this week, as defending champion Chile faces off against Argentina on Sunday night in a rematch of last year’s final. The tournament has brought together CONCACAF and South American squads in an exciting and successful competition throughout the United States this month.
As we prepare for what should be an incredible final match at a sold out MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, we take a look at the players who have made the biggest impact and mesmerized the crowds.
GK – David Ospina – Colombia
Colombia’s shot stopper put in an incredible performance during his nation’s run to the semifinals, giving up only one goal in the group stage and leading them to victory in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout over Peru in the quarterfinals.
His instincts and positioning were a constant strength even when opposing teams were bringing their best attacks forward. His kick save of Miguel Trauco’s penalty against Peru was a brilliant and heart pounding moment in the competition.
(Honorable mention: Claudio Bravo – Chile)
LB – Felipe Luis – Brazil
The summer has not gone according to plan for Brazil thus far, as the Selecao failed to advance past the Copa America group stage for the first time since 1993. However, one bright spot for Brazil was their talented left-back Felipe Luis.
Coming off another excellent season with Atletico Madrid, Luis helped Brazil to a clean sheet against Ecuador and was a handball away from doing the same versus Peru. His leadership and defensive reads were a constant positive for the squad, despite a defeat bringing the end of Dunga’s second stint as national team manager.
(Honorable mention: Marcos Rojo – Argentina)
CB – Arturo Mina – Ecuador
Ecuador’s attack was able to flourish throughout this competition thanks to an improved central defense, highlighted by Arturo Mina’s size and strength. During the group stage, Ecuador was able to move forward into attack with numbers while Mina and the backline held tight.
Two clean sheets in the group stage showcased the defender’s impact and if Antonio Valencia had not been sent off in the quarterfinal against the US, Ecuador certainly could have kept their tournament run going.
(Honorable mention: Nicolas Otamendi – Argentina)
CB – Gary Medal – Chile
Chile’s Copa America title defense began with a difficult 2-1 loss at the hands of Argentina. Since that opening match, the team has exploded and posted an aggregate score of 15-3 on their way to Sunday’s final. The offense has been able to thrive thanks to Inter Milan’s man with the non-stop motor.
Playing in central defense rather than his normal holding midfield role in Serie A, Medal’s toughness and leadership has helped snuff out opposing attacks throughout the competition. His ability to read the game and position himself properly will be put to the test again by Argentina this weekend.
RB – Gabriel Mercado – Argentina
Argentina’s tournament has featured an incredible stretch thus far where La Albiceleste has not trailed in any match at the Copa America Centenario, and part of that has come from the team’s ability to press their opponents and regain possession quickly.
Mercado has done an excellent job of gaining possession and playing the ball immediately to their laundry list of amazing talent in the midfield and forward positions.
Along with fellow fullback Marcos Rojo, his overlapping runs have been effective when needed to stretch opposing defenses as well.
MF – Arturo Vidal – Chile
Mohawks equal power. Or they’re cool. Or both. If they’re not, Bayern Munich’s box-to-box destroyer of a midfielder is doing a fine job of proving they are.
Vidal has two goals and two assists in leading Chile to the finals and his presence in the squad brings a confidence and an attitude to the team that can be a game-changer.
His absence from the semifinal match will have him rested and ready to strike for the final.
MF – Christian Cueva – Peru
We are all Christian Cueva.
It was hard not to feel for the 24-year old as he looked to the heavens, overcome with emotions at his untimely mistake. Despite his despair at missing the final penalty kick in Peru’s quarterfinal defeat against Colombia, the skillful midfielder had a tournament to remember.
Leading much of the Peru attack and handling free kicks, Cueva showed leadership skills in bunches. His stunning spin move and goal versus Ecuador was one of the highlights of the competition and has made many in the sport sit up and take notice, as evidenced by his newly signed four-year contract with Brazil’s Sao Paulo FC.
We have certainly not seen the last of Cueva.
MF – James Rodriguez – Colombia
The 2014 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot winner and Real Madrid star came into the tournament feeling quite a bit of pressure to guide Colombia to victory. He provided two goals and an assist in leading Los Cafeteros out of the group stage, then instilled the confidence the squad needed in their quarterfinal with Peru by calmly burying the first penalty kick of the shootout.
And all of these feats were accomplished after a painful injury to his shoulder in the opening group match versus the US. Although the journey ended at the semifinals, James Rodriguez put in a strong performance in getting Colombia to where it was this summer.
FW – Eduardo Vargas – Chile
Few folks in Mexico will soon forget the name Eduardo Vargas. His four goals in the quarterfinal match were part of the defending Copa America champions’ epic 7-0 beatdown of CONCACAF’s top ranked team and may have singlehandedly wrapped up the Golden Boot for the Chilean forward (six goals and an assist heading into the final).
Vargas’ positioning and mazy runs in the opposing territory caused problems with every backline the team has faced. He is hoping an incredible tournament will come to an incredible end with a victory over Argentina Sunday.
(Honorable mention: Javier Hernandez – Mexico)
FW – Clint Dempsey – USA
At 33 years of age and as the USA’s second all-time leading scorer, some seemed to believe that Clint Dempsey days with the national team were behind him. But the host nation’s junkyard dog would not quit on wreaking havoc on opposing teams and put together an impressive performance throughout the Yanks’ surprise run to the semifinals.
Dempsey’s three goals and three assists helped to win Group A, and his fighting spirit and unbreakable attitude seemed to rally the squad. His time with the US national team certainly does not appear over just yet.
(Honorable mention: Alexis Sanchez – Chile)
FW – Lionel Messi – Argentina
He is worth the price of admission. Ray Hudson would describe his play as “nothing less than magisterial”. The Flea.
Lionel Messi has lead Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final with a dominant performance throughout the competition. Although coming into the tournament with an injury and seeing limited minutes in the group stage, Messi made an impact in a hurry.
A hat trick in 19 minutes as a second half substitute against Panama announced his arrival in style, adding a jaw-dropping free kick goal in the semifinals and four assists along the way.
After bowing out of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America finals in extra time, could this be the title that Argentina take as their own? The world will find out this weekend.
(Honorable mention: Gonzalo Higuain – Argentina)
By Roy Emanuel, TFN Columnist on 23/06/2016 at 22:41
Follow Roy on Twitter @roy13a