Skill and passion always in fashion at the Copa America

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If you’re a U.S. soccer fan, it doesn’t get much better than this.

The prestigious Copa America soccer tournament is being played in the United States for the first time ever. And this isn’t just any Copa, it’s the Copa Centenario, the 100th anniversary of what organizers call the most long-lasting soccer tournament anywhere in the world.

Big crowds have been packing stadiums in cities from Pasadena and Houston to Philadelphia and Chicago to see some of the world’s best players compete in games that matter deeply to the countries involved. Over the next couple of weeks, the excitement will ratchet up as the best teams emerge from Group Play to go head-to-head in the knockout rounds. With a little luck, the U.S. will play in some of those matches. Team U.S.A. has a loss to Colombia and a win against Costa Rica. It needs a win or a tie against Paraguay on Saturday to advance out of its group.

Mexico, which has been beaten Uruguay and Jamaica, has demonstrated that it’s a bona fide contender to win the Copa, which features national teams from North, South and Central America. But Argentina, Colombia and Brazil might have something to say about that.

This will probably be the last chance to see the U.S. men’s team play in a meaningful tournament for a while; the men’s Under 23 squad failed to qualify for the summer Olympics in Rio.

L.A. Times sportswriter Kevin Baxter says the tournament has a lot of significance for U.S. soccer, beyond even how it performs on the field.

“This is also a dress rehearsal for the 2026 World Cup. That’s the one the U.S. wants to bid on,” Baxter says. “Everything seems to be going swimmingly so far. This was organized in six months. It took Brazil seven and a half years to prepare for the last World Cup. If the U.S. can pull this off, the rest of the world is going to look and say ‘my goodness, they put together an international tournament with 32 games in 10 cities in 23 days. This is a country that deserves a World Cup.”