Talent in abundance as Uruguay aim for record Copa América title

When Marcelo Bielsa was appointed Uruguay head coach in May 2023, he became just their second foreign coach following fellow Argentine Daniel Passarella’s spell between 1999 and 2001.

Passarella was a flop; his results were poor, and he was unpopular among supporters. He resigned, without taking La Celeste to a major tournament after falling out with senior figures in the AUF.

In contrast, Bielsa has breathed new life into this Uruguayan side and has the backing of the supporters. His clear style of play has given Uruguay an identity under which they have prospered. There have been stutters, inevitable in any national side, but when on form, they play the type of football you see in a video game: quick, powerful attacks that give the opposing defence little chance to even think before the ball has found the back of the net.

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It’s been 13 years since Uruguay last won the Copa América. The 2011 edition featured a Uruguayan team at the height of their attacking powers. Diego Forlán, Edinson Cavani, and Luis Suárez all featured, alongside others including Diego Godín, Maxi Pereira, Martín Cáceres, and Sebastián Coates.

Of that title-winning crop, only their all-time leading goalscorer, Suárez, remains; the 37-year-old is enjoying an excellent start to life at Inter Miami. With the recent retirement of Cavani, it is Suárez who’ll provide the experienced back up to the formidable, energetic, and younger front three of Facundo Pellistri, Darwin Núñez, and Maximiliano Araújo.

In their recent 4-0 thumping of fellow Copa participants Mexico, electrifying attacks punctured a static Mexico defence. The aforementioned front three all contributed to the goals, with Darwin Núñez bagging a hat trick, a continuation of his fine international scoring run.

In South America’s infamously competitive World Cup qualifying, Uruguay have scored 13 goals so far, five more than Argentina; Núñez has five of those goals and is currently the overall top scorer in qualifying. As for Pellistri, he is an example of contrasting national team and domestic success. Loan spells at Alavés and Granada from his parent side Manchester United have produced little; struggles in form stop in Europe, though. He’s been a revelation for Uruguay, coming in under former coach Diego Alonso but gaining Bielsa’s trust and thriving within his zestful playing style. Araújo is newer to the frame, playing his club football for Toluca in Liga MX. With good performances in the United States, a move to Europe seems inevitable.

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The attack is supported by what is arguably the best midfield going into the Copa América. Nicolás de la Cruz, the 2023 Copa de la Liga player of the season with River Plate in Argentina, is now part of a quartet of Flamengo players on the national side. Despite impressing for club and country, he is unlikely to start their opener against Panama, speaking volumes of the deep pockets that Uruguay possess in midfield. Federico Valverde is a certainty in the middle. The Real Madrid ace joined his teammates late after a Champions League triumph and a short holiday. He is the best player on this Uruguayan side and provides the engine that Bielsa adores, in addition to excellent technical ability, both offensively and defensively. He’ll be joined by Manuel Ugarte of PSG and Rodrigo Bentancur of Spurs, who are both immensely dynamic and combative.

The second-most-capped player on the team is captain and centre-back José María Giménez. The Atlético Madrid man is still only 29 years old, but he is a veteran with 84 caps and has been an ever-present in the middle of the back line for a generation. Alongside him will most likely be Sebastián Cáceres, with versatile Barcelona defender Ronald Araújo another option.

Uruguay will expect to finish at the top of a group that also includes Panama, Bolivia, and the United States. The U.S. will give La Celeste their biggest challenge, but it’s doubtful the American defence will be able to cope with Núñez and co. Finishing top is essential if they want to avoid potential Group D winners Brazil in the quarterfinals. Regardless of positioning, it will still be a tough path for Uruguay. The intense summer heat in the United States will require squad rotation because of their high-energy game.

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Bielsa went close to Copa success with his native Argentina in 2004; now he’ll go again, albeit with their neighbours. Uruguay is geographically sandwiched between the two tournament favourites, Brazil and Argentina. For all their CONMEBOL power, it is Uruguay who are the in-form side, and it is Bielsa who possesses the most identifiable playing style in a tournament featuring a host of new coaches.

Recent youth development and the success at the U20 World Cup in 2023 have provided Uruguay with a promising future; this tournament could catapult them into further success, with a distant eye on the 2026 World Cup. Do not be surprised to see them in Miami on July 14th, where they could win a record 16th Copa America title.

The Author

Corey Almond

Football writer based in Vancouver.

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