It’s a mystifying drought, made all the more poignant by its drag on the career of a player who’s already so close to being considered by many as the best ever. But Lionel Messi still hasn’t won a major senior title with Argentina, a world power that’s somehow gone 23 years without a trophy. Since winning the 1993 Copa América, Argentina has lost one World Cup final, two Confederations Cup finals and three Copa América finals. Messi played a part in half those defeats (all shutouts).
He’ll turn 31 during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where the mileage in his legs and the strength of the European powers will lengthen the championship odds. This Copa América may be Messi’s last best chance to win with Argentina, and that quest will be the defining storyline of the tournament. The group stage will serve as a nice warm-up.
Under new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, Chile should be forgiven if it doesn’t really want to be here. La Roja waited 99 years for its first Copa title and now must defend it only 12 months later as part of a lucrative celebration in the U.S. But Chile also should be feared. If motivated, this is a team that should ease through the first round and then make a run at repeating. In goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, defender Gary Medel, midfielder Arturo Vidal and forward Alexis Sánchez, among others, Chile has players that star at some of Europe’s top clubs.
Panama and Bolivia round out the group and almost surely will play each other for third. Panama has improved considerably in recent years—it should have beaten Mexico in the controversial 2015 Gold Cup semifinal—and can be tough to break down. The draw was unkind to Los Canaleros. Bolivia struggles when it descends from La Paz.
Match schedule (all times Eastern)
June 6: Panama-Bolivia at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, 7 p.m.
June 6: Argentina-Chile at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, 10 p.m.
June 10: Chile-Bolivia at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, 7 p.m.
June 10: Argentina-Panama at Soldier Field in Chicago, 9:30 p.m.
June 14: Chile-Panama at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, 8 p.m.
June 14: Argentina-Bolivia at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, 10 p.m.
Five players to watch
Juan Carlos Arce, Bolivia: He’s pretty much Bolivia’s only consistent threat to score. The 31-year-old Bolivar star has eight goals in 48 international matches. The rest of Bolivia’s Copa squad has tallied a combined seven.
Aníbal Godoy, Panama: The San Jose Earthquakes midfielder has emerged as a high-quality holder who can tackle, distribute and set the tone. He’ll be key to establishing the structure that should boost the offensive prospects of veterans Blas Pérez and Luis Tejada.
Gonzalo Higuaín, Argentina: Coming off a brilliant season with Napoli, for which he scored a career-high 38 goals, Higuaín will have maintain that form and remove some of the load from Messi’s shoulders. Perhaps Argentina’s drought would’ve ended if he’d done so in 2014:
Lionel Messi, Argentina: He frequently looks like he’s playing under pressure in the albiceleste, rather than with the joy we’re accustomed to seeing when he wears the blaugrana. Messi was a reluctant golden ball winner at the World Cup and then reportedly rejected the honor outright after last year’s Copa América final. He'll be the story of this tournament, regardless of how it ends.
Arturo Vidal, Chile: The do-everything midfield dynamo is the heart and soul of La Roja. He can create and destroy in equal measure and is as noticeable for his fiery temperament as for his impact on the run of play. The Bayern Munich star was man of the match at the 2015 Copa America final.
Panama is a well-organized team with a sturdy defense, strong midfield and a pair of experienced, savvy strikers in Blas Pérez and Luis Tejada who can make an opponent pay for an error or lapse in concentration. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo won an MLS title with the LA Galaxy and defender Felipe Baloy, who plays in Mexico, anchors a veteran back line. Chile and Argentina will overlook Los Canaleros at their peril.
Two picked to advance