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Your guide: Copa América brings global soccer giants to SoCal

by Dorian Merina | Take Two®

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Christian Raja, of Brooklyn, reacts while watching the United States versus Belgium game in the World Cup on a projected screen under the Manhattan Bridge on July 1, 2014 in the Dumbo neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, United States. This week, the US plays host for the first time for the Copa América tournament, bringing the best teams from the region to US cities. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

For the first time, the U.S. is playing host to the Copa América Centenario soccer tournament, bringing the hemisphere's top teams – and some of the world's best players – to U.S. cities.

The tournament opens tonight as the U.S. takes on Colombia at 6.30pm in Santa Clara, California.

Here are some quick highlights of what to keep an eye on in the coming weeks:

What is the Copa América and why is it such a big deal?

Traditionally, the Copa América brings together the top teams from South America, but in recent decades it's expanded to include teams from outside the region – such as Jamaica, Mexico and the US. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the event and the first time that the US plays host to the tournament. Last year, host nation Chile won, beating top-ranked Argentina in penalties. US coach Jurgen Klinsmann has set the bar high this year by saying he expects his team to reach the semi-finals, a daunting path that would likely require the U.S. to beat tournament giant Brazil.

Who are the players to watch for?

The teams are stacked with some of the top players in the world, starting with Argentina's Lionel Messi (though his teammates Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria, who are also top-notch scoring threats, will have to step up as Messi will miss at least the first game from a back injury). Uruguay features Barcelona striker Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Real Madrid midfielder James Rodriguez will lead Colombia. And Chile's Alexis Sanchez will head up a strong defending champion team. Also, you can't overlook Mexico's Javier Hernández, who scored a beautiful header for the winning goal this week against Chile in a friendly match.

How is the U.S. team shaping up?

Well, Landon Donovan has retired and long-time goalkeeper Tim Howard is coming off the bench, so the team looks different than in recent years. Also, first-choice striker Jozy Altidore is injured. Yes, Clint Dempsey will most likely be on the starting 11 and captain Michael Bradley still plays a critical role in the midfield. But this Copa América is a great opportunity to see some of the new and younger players try to make their mark and secure a spot on the national team for the World Cup in two years, taking place in Russia. A few of those to keep an eye on: Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, Christian Pulisic, John Brooks and Darlington Nagbi. (Check out the full roster here.) If the U.S. goes far in the tournament, more than one of these new faces will likely have to step up and make a splash in the Copa.

Mexico is coming to Southern California next week – what are the team's chances?

Mexico has continued its run of success, even after the departure of coach Miguel Herrera following the Gold Cup win last summer. The team is ranked 16 in the latest FIFA list of global teams and is coming off an impressive 1-0 win against Chile in a friendly match this week. All eyes are on forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernández – he'll have to score goals for the team to go far. But he's supported by a strong cast, including Andrés Guardado, Hector Herrera and Miguel Layún. Their first big test will come Sunday when they face-off against South American powerhouse Uruguay. Next Thursday, El Tri will visit the Rose Bowl to take on Jamaica.

Check out more details about the Copa América Centenario tournament here. See the full schedule below:

Copa América Centenario 2016 Schedule

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