The dead dog days of summer are generally the brief off-season for non-MLS soccer fans. Leagues and cup tournaments are in between seasons from around May to late August or September. But the summer is the setting for some of the world’s most beloved and cherished soccer – international competition.
The Copa America Centenario ended on June 26 and the 2016 UEFA European Championships ended two weeks later. While not as prestigious or as notorious as the FIFA World Cup played every four years, both tournaments carry a weighty history and legacy for their participants.
The Centenario, hosted by the United States, was a special edition of the Copa America tournament, a regular tournament held by CONMEBOL (the South American soccer federation), and CONCACAF (the North American). It featured 16 teams and was played in ten venues across the US from Seattle to Pasadena to Houston to Orlando to Philadelphia.
As is traditional with international tournaments, the host Americans opened play on a Friday, June 3, with a 0-2 loss to Colombia. The following Tuesday, they rebounded with a 4-0 thumping of Costa Rica. That set up a critical match against Paraguay on June 11. As fate would have it, I left Friday, June 10, for a week-long vacation in the US Virgin Islands.
Being the soccer nut that I am, it was fun getting to watch a Copa match on my Friday flight from Chicago to New York (well played, JetBlue). After a few hours’ sleep in New York, it was an early and long direct flight to St. Thomas, followed by a ferry ride across to St. John, followed by the island’s … interesting road navigation (they drive on the right side, despite being American soil).
So I was very ready for a meal and a beer and the kickoff of an important US soccer match by the time I found a promising looking pub with my company. Exhausted, I was buoyed by a pub packed with fans, many sporting patriotic colors and clothing. The match was on every television. True, crowded bars aren’t uncommon in vacation spots. But it was very clear that most people were there for the match.
What was most interesting and rewarding to me was seeing the mix of tourists from all over the mainland and also native islanders all glued to the TV to watch their boys play. The US delivered a fine performance and secured passage through to the knockout stage. When American hero Clint Dempsey scored, there were high fives, there were toasts raised, and there was no shortage of jubilant shouting. When the US went down to ten men due to a red card, there was about as much tension as my sleep-deprived and now beer-influenced body could handle until the final whistle blew.
A few days later, the US beat Ecuador to advance to the semifinals. A few days after that, they would be demolished by a Lionel Messi-led Argentina squad that was simply too good.
On Sunday, June 26, that same Argentina team was taken to penalties and beaten by Chile (who won the standard edition of the Copa America in 2015 as well), a loss that prompted a much-speculated retirement from international soccer by the sport’s megastar Messi.
But the Copa America Centenario was still quite the hit. The US semifinal match against Argentina was viewed by 3.29 million viewers on Fox’s FS1 – their most-watched soccer match in history – and Spanish-language network Univision saw 4.8 million viewers, with 44 million across the duration of their Copa coverage.
Match attendance was also record-shattering. Metlife Stadium just outside New York City sold out with over 81,000 tickets sold for the June 26 final. Total and average match attendance also shattered records, with nearly 1.5 million fans watching matches across the tournament.