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Copa America Centenario a chance for Fox and USMNT to shine

Geoff Cameron of the United States Men's National

Geoff Cameron of the United States Men's National Team celebrates his first-half goal against Guatemala with Graham Zusi of the United States Men's National Team and Clint Dempsey of the United States Men's National Team during the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Sabau

There are Americans now old enough to drink legally who were not born when the United States last hosted the men’s soccer World Cup, and the next time one might come this way will be 2026 at the earliest.

In the meantime, there is this: Copa America Centenario, which runs June 3-26 and will be the biggest men’s soccer tournament in the U.S. since the 1994 World Cup. (The final will be held at MetLife Stadium.)

So this represents an opportunity for Fox, the American TV home for the next three men’s World Cups, to continue establishing its bona fides to a broad soccer audience.

Executive producer David Neal said part of Fox’s mission will be educating viewers about the tournament, which will bring together 16 national teams representing both North and South America.

“You have to lay the foundation,” he said, a notion that includes the stakes involved. “Some of the players, whether it’s Chicharito [Javier Hernandez of Mexico] or [Lionel] Messi [of Argentina] or [Luis] Suarez of Uruguay, they have played here, but they’ve been in friendlies or exhibitions and it’s just not the same. This is a real competition.

“These are players who want to win that trophy and it is a North and South thing . . . You have all of these teams together and the players really care about this. The level of quality of play that our fans are going to see and the level of players on the field that they’re going to see, this is a big deal.”

“It’s a huge tournament,” said Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, who called it the “second-biggest men’s tournament we’ve ever had here.”

But he said the country is ready for it.

“I think we’ve shown that in the United States already,” he said. “Now with a league [MLS] averaging over 20,000 [in attendance], with the international games that are played here, with the Gold Cup’s success, with the success of national team games, I think we’ve already shown we can put on big games, and when it’s big events, even more so.

“This is a tournament that in a very short period of time has been organized and will average, my guess is between 35 and 40,000 people a game. That’s pretty incredible.”

Neal said that about two-thirds of the games will be called by announcers who are not on site, even though all of the games will be in the U.S.

“That’s pretty standard in the business now,” he said. “ESPN will be doing the same thing with the Euros. They’ll have some of their guys there and some of their guys in Bristol. That’s pretty standard. We have four announce teams. Two will travel and two will stay in L.A.”

Gulati said Fox has been a “terrific partner for FIFA and for U.S. soccer” and he called its first big event, the 2015 women’s World Cup, “fantastic.”

Fox analyst Alexi Lalas said that one of the subplots of the tournament will be how the national teams involved balance winning with preparing for the 2018 World Cup and its qualifying prelude.

“Everybody wants to win,” he said. “But we’re leading up to a World Cup, and all the teams are in their qualifying process. So how do they approach it? . . . Do they recognize that hey, this is going to be one of the last times they get some good, quality competition in a tournament setting?

“And from a U.S. perspective, I really think that for [coach] Jur gen Klinsmann and this U.S. team it’s vital that they have a good showing, because I think that there is a general apathy and malaise and a lack of hope right now and belief that this is a team that you can hold onto and be confident going into the 2018 World Cup.”

Gulati was not as blunt as Lalas in discussing the U.S. men’s national team, but he did agree that next month will be an important proving ground.

“We’re still in between years in World Cups, and it’s always about building toward qualifying,” he said. “We had a tough last summer with the Gold Cup and the game against Mexico. So this is a very important tournament for us, but the real importance is in qualifying for the World Cup and then obviously doing well there.

“However, this gives us a terrific test over the summer. Eight of the 16 teams that are playing over the summer in this event played in the second round of the World Cup. So it’s a pretty good barometer of where we are.”

New York Sports