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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    U.S. views Copa America as last big challenge before hosting 2026 World Cup

    FILE - Christian Pulisic of the United States controls the ball during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between the Netherlands and the United States, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. Pulisic just had one of his best seasons in Europe, scoring 12 goals with nine assists in Italy for AC Milan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)

    New York — In a region that provides few tests, the United States views the Copa America as its last significant challenge ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

    “A World Cup on home soil is the biggest thing that you know we’ll probably do in our career,” star attacker Christian Pulisic said. “It’s a special time for this sport in America.”

    Eighteen players from the 2022 World Cup roster were in training camp ahead of the tournament. The U.S. opens against Bolivia on June 23 at Arlington, Texas, plays Panama four days later at Atlanta and closes the group stage vs. Uruguay on July 1 at Kansas City, Missouri.

    The U.S. could meet Brazil in the quarterfinals. But players and staff view this as another step toward June 12, 2026, when the Americans play their World Cup opener at Inglewood, California.

    “Copa America is essential to the growth of this group, and I believe this is a very important tournament for us as a team. This is the last major tournament before the World Cup. We’ll have Gold Cup, but the caliber of teams does not match Copa America,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It is a building block in which to to go into the World Cup confident.”

    Berhalter was let go when his contract expired at the end of 2022 in the messy fallout of a feud with the Reyna family, then brought back and returned behind the bench last September. His core is the same as during the 2022 World Cup, where the U.S. lost to the Netherlands 3-1 in the round of 16.

    Pulisic, 25, comes into the tournament following his best season. He scored 12 Serie A goals in his first season with AC Milan plus one in the Champions League and two in the Europa League. His equalizer gave the Americans a 1-1 draw against Brazil Tuesday night in their last pre-tournament warmup, his 29th international goal in 68 appearances.

    “He’s had some unfortunate injuries along his path and he's been at some places where maybe he hasn’t gotten the best look and wasn’t really the number one option, but I think everyone in this country knows how talented he is,” said American forward Haji Wright, Pulisic's teammate now and at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup. “He's really finding his goal-scoring form. He’s able to affect the game by actually scoring and contributing in front of the goal. And that’s something he always used to do when we were children.”

    Tyler Adams, the U.S. World Cup captain and another member of that 2015 team, is regaining fitness following a frustrating 15 months. A 25-year-old defensive midfielder, Adams played just one club match from March 2023 until this past March 13 because of a torn right hamstring that needed surgery. After returning to play two matches for Bournemouth in March, the midfielder was limited by back spasms to one game over the rest of the season, an 11-minute appearance on May 11. He entered the June 12 friendly against Brazil in the 76th minute.

    Right back Sergiño Dest will miss the tournament because of a torn ACL, opening the spot for 21-year-old Joe Scally. Chris Richards appears to have gained a starting spot in central defense alongside Tim Ream on a back line that has Antonee Robinson on the left.

    Goalkeeper Matt Turner is a cause for concern. He lost the starting job at Nottingham Forest this season after poor play and was at fault for some of the goals in the 5-1 loss to Colombia and this week's game against Brazil.

    "He’s getting his rhythm. He’s going to be fine come tournament time,” Berhalter said. “You can see that he didn’t have a regular slate of games and it’s going to take him a little bit to get into it.”

    This will be the fifth Copa America appearance for the U.S., which was eliminated in the group stage in 1993 and 2007, and finished fourth in 1995 and 2016.

    “What you’re seeing on the pitch is now we’re clicking even more than ever,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said, “and I think it’s just going to continue to get better and better.”

    U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner gives up a goal to Colombia forward Luis Díaz during the second half of an international friendly soccer match Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
    FILE - Tyler Adams of the United States runs on the pitch during the World Cup group B soccer match between England and The United States, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, Nov. 25, 2022. Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Matt Turner and Tim Ream will be given the three weeks ahead of the Copa America to regain sharpness during U.S. team training after seeing little playing time over the final three months of their club seasons. “We have friendly games to build up their fitness and get them ready,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Monday, May 20, 2024, after announcing a 27-man roster for pre-tournament friendlies against Colombia on June 8 at Landover, Maryland, and Brazil four days later at Orlando, Florida. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

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