As USA soccer and Mexico failed, Canada's Copa America blueprint gives Jesse Marsch's side optimism and belief

                        As USA soccer and Mexico failed, Canada's Copa America blueprint gives Jesse Marsch's side optimism and belief
By: CBS Sports Posted On: July 10, 2024 View: 4

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There's always an air of excitement when a sporting event delivers a rare but proper Cinderella story, and Canada's underdog status against Argentina in the Copa America semifinal was omnipresent no matter the lens one chose to view things from.

Trains to MetLife Stadium were full of fans clad in baby blue and white, singing songs en route to the venue while the dramatically outnumbered Canada fans sporting bright red stuck out like a sore thumb, even as they politely minded their own business. The same was true inside the stadium, where a tightly packed section of red made up just a sliver of the 80,000-strong crowd in attendance.

It did not take long for the difference to be felt on the pitch, too, offering a reminder that the question asked of Cinderellas about if they can go for one more game can be answered simply with a no.

Canada lost 2-0 to Argentina on Tuesday after the energy evaporated from them barely 20 minutes into the game, not helped by a hot, summer day that was accompanied by burdensome humidity. That is not to suggest that Canada crumbled under the weight of expectations; the first Copa America semifinal just became a slog that was meant to be survived, which is why a feeling of inevitability canceled out any excitement for an underdog story.

"I think that the tournament caught up with us a little bit," Canada head coach Jesse Marsch said after the game. "Argentina rotated a lot of players throughout the tournament so that they were using different players at different moments so that they weren't calling on the same players every match. There's been heat, there's been travel, there's been a lot of challenges."

It required each team to rely on their parts rather than the sum, which was always going to benefit Argentina. It was far from their best 90-minute showing but it did not matter as Lionel Messi finally got his first goal of the competition while his team dominated the match. Adding to the feeling of certain defeat was the loss of Canada's star and captain Alphonso Davies, who Marsch said will need an x-ray after exiting the match with an injury.

And yet, the air of optimism stayed put. How could it not, since Marsch has had less than two weeks in the job and took Canada all the way to the semifinals of a competition they struggled to qualify for before he turned up?

It is an impressive feat with so little time to prepare and alongside a player pool that has some star power but is incomparable to the world's top-ranked team. Luck always plays a part -- Canada were undoubtedly on the easy side of the bracket, facing some of South America's lower-ranked sides en route to the semifinals, which allowed them to get away with scoring just two goals so far. One-off meetings in tournament settings are also the perfect setting for a team to punch above their own weight as long as they have a good day. Marsch himself admitted that his first few weeks in the job went better than expected, with them now in Saturday's third-place match to close off their first-ever trip to the Copa America.

"It'll be hard when we're all done to say goodbye because I've really enjoyed the process with this team and I think we've made a lot of progress together," he said. "We've had a wonderful five weeks together, six weeks together, and it's gone way better than any of us could have scripted. We have still a lot of work to do but we've built a really good foundation and I'm really optimistic about what the future can look like."

In just a few short weeks, though, Marsch mapped out the mission for the sport's middling national teams, each of whom have ambitions to do better than some might expect regardless of the challenges that face them. He translated his attack-minded, pressing style to the international level with immediate results, leading Canada to post nearly seven expected goals and pose danger along the way, even if by Marsch's own admission they need to be more efficient in front of goal. It's a demonstration that strong coaching can boost any team's chances, an exciting prospect amidst the visionless scenarios other similarly-positioned national teams find themselves in.

The easiest comparisons to Canada's quick success are the neighboring U.S. and Mexico, both of whom will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Canada and entered the Copa America as a chance to impress before the tournament on home soil in two years. The other two have historically been better than Canada and yet crashed out of the group stage and now feel directionless for different reasons. The U.S. situation is particularly glaring because Marsch was a candidate for the job in his native country but said he "wasn't treated very well in the process" that led them to re-hire Gregg Berhalter a year ago.

Those two teams are far from the only examples, though, since so many national teams are in the midst of their own plateaus for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that it is just remarkably hard to turn a minnow into a dark horse. While Marsch and company earn praise from their nation, they have also raised the bar much higher than originally anticipated -- and perhaps raised the stakes in the process. If the Copa America was a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, then the countdown to live up to the billing in two years' time is officially underway.

Marsch has already identified the areas of improvement for the next two years.

"Creating a broader player pool will be important," he said. "And then continuing to work on the details of how we're going to play but we're off to a really good start."

The first point harkens back to Argentina's strengths since the team has been finding a way to score without Messi all tournament long and managed to rotate as they traveled around the U.S. to defend their Copa America title. It is also perhaps the hardest thing Marsch can do since he can only control player development so much. It is as big a promise as any, though, and the onus will be on him and the Canadian Soccer Association to deliver in two years.

It may be an uphill battle considering Marsch's constraints. In addition to the still-limited player pool, international coaches have intermittent FIFA-sanctioned breaks to impose their style of play and Canada will have the added difficulty of scheduling high-quality friendlies while the rest of the world is tied up with World Cup qualifiers. Time will tell if this is an impossible task or the start of the blueprint for national teams that hope the sum is greater than the parts.

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