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A ‘hungry’ U.S. team enters a Copa America event with some of world’s top teams

U.S. faces pressure to live up to Copa America hype.

U.S. defender Geoff Cameron, left, is congratulated by midfielder Michael Bradley after scoring against St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a game on Nov. 13, 2015.

(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Earlier this spring, when the Copa America Centenario seemed more an idea than a reality, Juergen Klinsmann gathered some key U.S. Soccer Federation employees for a pep talk.

“I said to the entire staff, ‘Guys, you need to be aware that this is the biggest soccer event since the World Cup in the United States. By far,’” the national team coach told them.

Three months later Klinsmann’s words have become a mantra, repeated so often by sponsors and organizers they’ve become an unofficial slogan.

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“These aren’t my words,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said apologetically Wednesday with what, for Bradley, passed as a smile. “[But] I think it’s probably the biggest tournament since the World Cup in 1994 to be held here.”

Whether those words are true will be put to the test beginning Friday, when the U.S. opens the 23-day tournament against Colombia at Levi’s Stadium (6:30 p.m., FS1, Univision, UniMas, UDN).

Yet even before anyone has kicked a ball in anger, the event is already on track to become the best-attended and most profitable Copa America in history. More than 1 million tickets have been sold across 10 venues, just 144,000 shy of the tournament record set in 1979 when it had seven fewer games.

Less than 24 hours before kickoff, fewer than 3,000 tickets remained for Friday’s game. And more than 46,000 have been sold for Saturday’s Brazil-Ecuador game at the Rose Bowl.

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Commercial inventory, mostly stadium signage, has sold out, 15 corporate sponsors have signed on and the tournament’s 32 games will be televised in more than 160 countries. Those are remarkable numbers, considering that just eight months ago this special 100th anniversary of the South American championships had been all but canceled, a victim of the global soccer bribery and corruption scandal that led to criminal charges against more than 40 men.

Many of those were officials with CONEMBOL and CONCACAF, the regional governing bodies for the sport in the Americas, who were accused of taking more than $110 million in kickbacks while organizing the Copa America Centenario, effectively killing the tournament.  But in November, with new leadership atop both groups, the event was revived, then reorganized in less time than it takes some states to put together a youth club tournament.

“This is a gift given to us by CONEMBOL AND CONCACAF, that they finally figured it out and got this tournament going,” Klinsmann said. “And for our team, it’s just a wonderful opportunity.”

An opportunity, Klinsmann said, to prove the U.S. can play with some of the world’s best teams — and five of the top nine are in this tournament, among them top-ranked Argentina, No. 5 Chile and seventh-ranked Brazil.

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The Americans get third-ranked Colombia first before moving on to face Costa Rica, a World Cup quarterfinalist in 2014, and Paraguay in group play. The top two finishers in each of the four groups advance to the knockout round of the 16-team tournament. The final will be played June 26 in East Rutherford, N.J.

“We have no fear. We have a team that is very hungry,” Klinsmann said. “This is the big stage for a Michael Bradley. That’s the big stage for a Clint Dempsey. That’s the big stage for a Jermaine Jones.

“This is about measuring yourself. Are we capable of competing with them eye to eye? To beat them? I think we are. But you have to prove it.”

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Key to making that happen is Bradley, one of 14 holdovers for the 2014 World Cup squad. Klinsmann has been regularly  accused of using players out of position and Bradley was among those affected, spending the last two years primarily as an attacking midfielder. Klinsmann recently moved him back to a more comfortable holding role in a 4-3-3 formation and the team immediately clicked.

Against a physical team like Colombia, one that is quick on the transition and boasts the 2014 World Cup scoring leader in James Rodriguez, Bradley will almost certainly remain in that defensive role.

“It’s up to him to decide how he sees the team and what he wants from every single one of us,” Bradley said of Klinsmann. “When that whistle blows there has to be the willingness and commitment from every guy to be ready to do everything to help the team. So that’s always been my mentality.”

On the offensive end the absence of Jozy Altidore, out (again!) with a strained hamstring, means the scoring load is likely to fall on the 33-year-old Dempsey and youngsters Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes. This tournament could also serve as the coming-out party for precocious teenager Christian Pulisic, who scored the final goal in the U.S.’ last pre-Copa tuneup win over Bolivia.

“We have our own expectations, absolutely,” Klinsmann said. “Our expectations are we want to grow as a soccer nation. We want to send stronger signals out to South America, to Europe that we’re learning.

“We still have a lot of learning in front of us. We know that. But we are very ambitious.”

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