DAVID SMITH - Monday, May 30, 2016
In just over four days the Copa América Centenario will kick off, beginning what looks to be a critical test of the US squad after an extended period of frustratingly up and down results.
The team is still in transition, but a clear glimpse of the core for the next few years is beginning to settle. The Copa is a bit of a trial by fire, pitting the six best CONCACAF squads against - top to bottom - the world's highest quality soccer confederation.
While avoiding the obvious powerhouses of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, the US squad was still drawn into a group where any of the four teams could expect to reach the knockout rounds. YA will take a deeper look at the three opponents that Klinsmann's men will face in the coming weeks, and try to give an idea of what awaits.
We begin with Paraguay, likely the biggest unknown in the group to US fans, but hardly a team to ignore.
Paraguay Head coach Díaz has been opting for a traditional 4-4-2 lineup more often than not recently, using a pair of defensive midfielders - usually Néstor Ortigoza and Celso Ortiz - behind a heavily attack-minded front four.
This has made their games anything but low-scoring borefests, for better or worse. Both of their World Cup qualification games this year have ended in entertaining 2-2 draws, however few fans will have forgotten the 6-1 embarrassment in the semifinal of the 2015 edition of the Copa against Argentina.
Having the testicular fortitude to stand chin-to-chin against your opponents is admirable, but sometimes, against a tidal wave of quality, it's just not the best idea.
In terms of their current World Cup qualification campaign, they are on the outside looking in, down in 7th place after one-third of the schedule played. They have a hard road ahead should they have any designs on making the trip to Russia in two years time, and might realistically have the best hope of finishing fifth and reaching the intercontinental playoff.
They are clearly a shadow of the overachieving squad from 5-6 years ago, which managed to reach the World Cup quarterfinal in 2010, pushing eventual champions Spain to the limit, and then followed up the next summer by finishing runners-up to Uruguay in the 2011 Copa América.
Since then, they missed qualification for the 2014 World Cup (finishing an embarrassing dead last in CONMEBOL), suffered the 6-1 hiding in the 2015 Copa América semifinal, and are currently experiencing the aforementioned difficulties to qualify for Russia 2018.
That said, they are a team in flux with the right mix of veterans and potentially explosive talents to make some noise in the group stage and perhaps even the knockout round.
In terms of the on-field talent, Paraguay bring a number of inexperienced players to the tournament, although with some of the country's most grizzled veterans to give them guidance.
A notable total of 14 from the 23 players have fewer than 15 national team caps to their name, with more than a third of the squad - eight in total - having five or less national team appearances at the time the 23-man roster was named.
This inexperience at the highest level is offset by a trio of veterans - Justo Villar, Paolo da Silva and Nelson Valdez - who bring a cumulative total of 45 years and 317 caps to their name.
The ageless keeper Villar, who made his professional debut several years before American phenom Christian Pulisic was even born, has started the previous two Paraguay games, notably captaining their recent 2-2 World Cup qualification draw against Brazil. However, the slightly younger Antony Silva has earned roughly an equal amount of starts over the last two years, and could finally take over the reigns for this tournament.
Team captain Paolo da Silva, who made his debut in the year 2000, will anchor a back line most likely consisting of either Pablo Aguilar or Gustavo Gómez pairing him in the middle, Miguel Samudio on the left and Bruno Valdez on the right.
da Silva has been handed the captain's armband for the tournament, an honor he has had a few times during his national team career, although never for any major tournaments.
In the midfield, the team has their biggest hole to fill, after recently-anointed team captain, and central midfield rock Néstor Ortigoza suffered a hamstring injury immediately before the final 23 was selected, and will have to be a spectator for what should have been his first major tournament as the man in charge.
The attacking impetus of the team absolutely demands a double-six to shield the back line, so the major question is who will take the place of Ortigoza to pair with AZ Alkmaar's Celso Ortiz.
28 year-old Juan Rodrigo Rojas would be most experienced option, even though he has never really broken through to the national team on any regular basis, but Robert Piris Da Motta, who at 21 years is ready to graduate after long tenure in Paraguay's youth setup, will likely be Paraguay's most important - albeit unheralded - glimpse of the new generation happening in this tournament.
Up front, the squad is a complete dichotomy of untapped - frustratingly so - promise and a few steady hands. If they do make a deep run in the tournament, it certainly won't be through 0-0 draws and penalty shootouts.
Argentinean manager Díaz will most likely continue with his recent trend of starting Ingolstadt's Darío Lezcano and Cruz Azul's Jorge Benítez as a front-two pairing. While the pair are hugely inexperienced with a grand total of 10 national team appearances between the two of them, Seattle's Nelson Valdez, who is playing in his fourth Copa América and sixth major tournament with Paraguay, will be an experienced bench option.
Querétaro's Édgar Benítez and Dynamo Kyiv's Derlis González will fill out the rest of the attack, either manning the wings if Díaz opts for a more traditional 4-4-2 as has been his habit of late, or with key-man González lining up directly behind the front two should a narrower attack be in store.
While hardly an unknown quantity, the 22 year-old González has nevertheless struggled to develop into the star he was ordained to be in his first season at Kyiv after an expensive transfer, but will likely be given the keys to Paraguay's attack for the tournament, and could be in line for a big breakout.
For those looking for a cheap comparison, González could feasibly stand out like Colombia's James Rodriguez circa 2014 and terrorize his opponents, or stay contained in a more controlled role and never break out of his cage.
The other wild card is 22 year-old Roma forward/winger hybrid Juan Iturbe, who is oozing with potential but has yet to put it all together for club or country...whichever country he is repping these days.
His loan to English Premier League side Bournemouth for the first half of 2016 was a total bust, with the club effectively paying more than $1.5M in loan fees for a few scant moments of play with the first-team mixed among strong performances for their U-21 developmental squad.
This is a far cry from the player who Roma signed for close to $30M two summers ago.
His place with La Albirroja has also been far from certain until recent months. As an Argentinean-born son of Paraguayan parents, he was eligible for both countries. Having made his national team debut for Paraguay as a 16 year-old in 2009, he spent the next six years trying to break into the Argentinean side before finally relenting, and returned to the Paraguay setup for their recent World Cup qualifiers in March.
Should he manage to unseat any of the presumed front four - in particular Édgar Benítez - by the start of the group stage, it will signal bad news for opposing defenders.
All together, Paraguay have a squad which is stronger than the low-points of the recent few years would indicate. As their disastrous Brazil 2014 qualification clearly demonstrated, they could still implode to a last-place finish in what is a tough group. If a few key pieces - in particular Iturbe and Derlis - hit their stride, they could challenge Colombia for first-place and make a run to the semifinal.
My feeling is that neither of these extremes will happen, and they will finish a respectable third place in the group.
Against the US, the pressure will almost certainly be on for both teams as their meeting will be the final of group play. Barring an unlikely collapse or utter domination by either team in the first two games of group play, their matchup should have knockout implications for both.
The crystal ball is showing either an entertaining 2-2 draw or a 3-2 victory to the US.
Paraguay 23-man squad
Head coach: Ramón Díaz
Diego Barreto (Olimpia / Paraguay), Antony Silva (Cerro Porteño / Paraguay), Justo Villar (Colo Colo / Chile)
Pablo Aguilar (América / Mexico), Fabian Balbuena (Corinthians / Brazil), Paolo Da Silva (Toluca / Mexico), Gustavo Gomez (Lanus / Argentina), Blas Riveros (Olimpia / Paraguay), Miguel Samudio (América / Mexico), Bruno Valdez (Cerro Porteño / Paraguay)
Miguel Almiron (Lanus / Argentina), Nestor Ortigoza (San Lorenzo / Argentina), Celso Ortiz (AZ Alkmaar / Netherlands), Rodrigo Rojas (Cerro Porteño / Paraguay), Robert Piris Da Motta (Olimpia / Paraguay), Oscar Romero (Racing / Argentina),
Edgar Benitez (Queretaro / Mexico), Jorge Benitez (Cruz Azul / Mexico), Derlis Gonzalez (FC Dynamo / Ukraine), Nelson Haedo Valdez (Seattle Sounders / USA), Juan Iturbe (AFC Bournemouth / England), Dario Lezcano (FC Ingolstadt / Germany), Antonio Sanabria (Sporting Gijon / Spain)