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Centenario stakes

By Paul Tenorio | @PaulTenorio 

The United States men’s national team is often measured on a pass-fail scale.

American captain Michael Bradley memorably classified World Cup qualifying as such. Qualify and you pass; fail to make the World Cup and you don’t. It’s easy to argue the CONCACAF Gold Cup is perceived the same way. Winning the regional tournament is a passing grade; anything else is failure.

Typically, that changes only every four years. The World Cup is seen as the truest measurement for the U.S. national team in respect to the rest of the world. Regional dominance has become an expectation, and it’s usually a two-dog fight with rival Mexico. Friendly results against top European teams are thrown out.

How far has the U.S. advanced? The World Cup will tell you.

That four-year cycle will be interrupted this summer when the U.S. hosts the Copa America Centenario. The biggest teams from South America will bring mostly full-strength rosters to the tournament. Mexico and the U.S. will battle for supremacy and respect alongside the likes of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

And plenty more is at stake for the U.S. than simply pass-fail. Every result will be parsed. The standing of the national team program will be catalogued on multiple levels, both globally and regionally, based on how it performs this summer.

As U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann put it in April: “This is a big deal.”

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U.S. vs. Mexico

The tide of the most influential soccer rivalry in CONCACAF began to change at the turn of the millennium.

Since the year 2000, the U.S. has had the better of the head-to-head match-up with Mexico on the senior level. The United States has posted a 13-6-5 record against its regional rival, including the famous 2-0 win in the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup – the beginning of ‘dos a cero.’

Those chants have echoed through many of the U.S.-Mexico games since. The measure of dominance in CONCACAF goes beyond just head-to-head match-ups, however, and Mexico has surged ahead in some areas.

Since the beginning of the Jurgen Klinsmann era in July 2011, the U.S. youth national team programs have failed to measure up to Mexico’s success.

The U.S. under-17s did not qualify for the 2013 World Cup, then finished third in CONCACAF qualifying in 2015 before failing to get out of the group stage at the World Cup. The under-20 national team lost to Mexico in the 2013 CONCACAF championships and went out at the World Cup in the group stage. The 2015 version of the U-20 team finished second in its group in CONCACAF qualifying, but made a quarterfinal run in the 2015 World Cup, the best finish by any youth side under Klinsmann.

The under-23 Olympic team has will miss its second straight Olympic Games later this year after another failure in CONCACAF qualifying.

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Those records look even worse when measured up to Mexico’s accomplishments.

Mexico’s under-17s won both the 2013 and 2015 CONCACAF championships and finished second and fourth at the World Cup in those years, respectively. El Tri’s under-20 teams won the CONCACAF championships in 2013 and 2015 and advanced to the Round of 16 in 2013, though it failed to get out of the group in 2015. Mexico’s under-23 Olympic team took home the gold medal at the 2012 Games and qualified as the top team in CONCACAF again for this summer’s games in Rio de Janeiro.

The different paths of the national team programs presented a concerning pattern that finally reached the senior level last year.

Mexico’s national team captured the Gold Cup in 2015 while the U.S. finished a distant fourth. El Tri then beat the Americans, 3-2, in the CONCACAF Cup for a berth in next year’s Confederations Cup.

It felt like a sudden change.

“They were not easy to swallow and people got very critical,” Klinsmann said in January. “And rightfully so.”

Just one cycle ago, Mexico needed American Graham Zusi’s goal against Panama to reach a World Cup playoff series with New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup. Now, the Copa America is a chance for Mexico to announce itself as the unquestioned top dog in CONCACAF, a distinction it hasn’t held in some time – not since before the U.S. knocked El Tri out of the World Cup.

After its porous Gold Cup and slow start to qualifying, the U.S. will look at this tournament as a chance to heal itself ahead of the fall qualifiers. Advancing beyond Mexico would also keep open the argument about which team deserves top billing in the region.

The Centenario, therefore, represents the rare chance to reverse the narrative that has started to build against Klinsmann and to reinject some confidence into the national team program as it looks toward Russia in 2018.

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The Copa America will be a proving ground not just for the U.S., but by extension the CONCACAF region.

Rightfully seen as the little brother in the Western Hemisphere, CONCACAF teams will not get a better chance to make a statement against the top teams from South America. Both the U.S. and Mexico will enjoy home-field advantages. The home-field advantage gives both teams an opportunity that hasn’t existed since the 1994 World Cup: a crowd that can help them to a win over the favored South American sides.

“The Copa America for us is a once in a lifetime opportunity because when will you have the next Copa America here in the United States, home advantage,” Klinsmann said at the start of U.S. camp in Miami Shores in May. “How long is your career? Maybe 12 to 15 years if you stay healthy, so I don’t know how many Copa Americas are coming by again for you as a player. This is what our message is for the next couple days … saying ‘Listen guys, you’ve got to take this opportunity. Take this showcase.’”

Just what success means is open for interpretation.

No non-CONMEBOL team has ever won the Copa America, though Mexico has come close before. El Tri finished second in both 1993 and 2001, losing to Argentina and Colombia, respectively, in the final. Mexico also finished in third place in 1997, 1999 and 2007. The U.S. took fourth place in 1995.

El Tri has set ambitious standards.

"We see the Copa America as the objective," Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio told press in Atlanta in April. "We want to be inside the top three places, [and] hopefully reach the final."

An appearance in the final by either the U.S. or Mexico would have implications that impact the region -- and the soccer hierarchy on this side of the Atlantic.

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