Reflecting on the Copa América Centenario's legacy

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - As the last crescendo of Argentina's stirring national anthem thundered across MetLife Stadium, the scene looked more like Buenos Aires than a sprawling American suburb.

From fancy sideline seats to the highest nosebleeds, the stands were full of those legendary blue and white stripes. Albiceleste, to use the Spanish term for both the color scheme and the team's nickname: on jerseys, flags, even balloons that soared into the sky as fans raised their voices.

At the end of the night, the party moved across the Andes to Santiago. Though Chile's red-clad fans were outnumbered, their cheers were loud and clear when La Roja lifted the Copa América Centenario trophy. The players joined in the fun, dancing in a big circle after the ceremony.

But a moment’s glance away from the field reminded all 82,026 fans in attendance that they weren’t in Argentina or Chile. They were in the United States. That fact is worth celebrating too.

This tournament truly was America's Copa América. The nation's melting pot of Hispanic immigrants turned out in droves to support every participating nation. Thousands of tourists came from abroad to electrify this country's biggest cities and stadiums.

Overall, nearly 1.5 million fans attended the 32 games nationwide. Millions more watched on television in English or Spanish – and often times both.

The action was wildly entertaining, with an average of 2.84 goals scored per game.

Can there be any doubt left that the Copa América Centenario lived up to the hype?

Almost all the stars who came here delivered. To name just a few: Chile's Alexis Sánchez, the tournament's most outstanding player; Colombia's James Rodriguez; the United States' Clint Dempsey; Mexico's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona; and Brazil's Philippe Coutinho.

And of course, there was the star of all stars, Argentina's Lionel Messi. Is he really done playing for the national team? Or were his stunning remarks a veiled threat to Argentina's federation, which has treated him and other star players poorly?

Messi's millions of fans across the globe gasped in collective astonishment when the news broke in the late hours of Sunday night.

He was surely haunted by his missed penalty kick in Sunday's shootout. But before then, he led Argentina to the title game with five goals and four assists.

Remember the hat trick against Panama in 18 minutes after he came into the game as a substitute? Or his free kick for the ages that sank the United States? Surely Messi's brilliance is worth remembering just as much as his failure, if not more.

The same can be said for the Copa América Centenario as a whole.

No, the tournament wasn't perfect. Some stars didn't play, the ticket prices were too high to attract casual fans, and too many games were marred by chants of a Spanish-language homophobic slur.

But for three thrilling weeks, a joyous soccer spectacle was front and center on the American sports landscape.

Fox Sports 1's English-language broadcasts of United States games smashed the channel's men's soccer viewership records. Many other games drew audiences equal to or greater than ESPN's coverage of the supposedly superior European Championship.

Univision was an even bigger winner, as its broadcasts drew an average of nearly three million viewers per contest. On more than a few occasions, the network beat English-language networks head-to-head in prime time.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Copa América Centenario's success is this: It was planned and executed in just over eight months.

Yes, the tournament was originally announced a few years ago. But those original plans were full of bribes and kickbacks that put the event in the Department of Justice's crosshairs. The indictments that came down last spring include many references to ill-gotten gains from the Copa.

Soon after Attorney General Loretta Lynch became a household name worldwide, the U.S. Soccer Federation demanded that if the corrupt contracts weren't torn up, the tournament wouldn't be allowed here.

(It's fair to wonder whether U.S. Soccer could have been more insistent in the first place. At this point, one can only say better late than never.)

The meetings where everything was ultimately cleaned up took place in September and October of last year.

Only then could organizers pick the stadiums, set the game schedule, sell tickets and secure travel arrangements for participating teams. FIFA also had to be convinced to put the tournament on its official calendar, a requirement to get European club teams to allow their big stars to play.

Venues were confirmed just before Thanksgiving. The draw was held just before Christmas. Tickets went on sale in February. One of the tournament's marquee names, Mexico's Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, confirmed he'd play in late April.

All those things happened in a total of 224 days. World Cup hosts get six years to prepare.

If that doesn't prove to the world that the United States is ready to host soccer's biggest spectacle for a second time, what will?

You could say the Copa's success is just another sign of soccer's growth in the United States. Or that you aren't surprised a Latin-flavored tournament was popular with Latino audiences. But something about this event felt like more than just another milepost on soccer's journey to prominence here.

Maybe it's this: For the first time in a while, a big soccer event was genuinely fun.

Yes, there was plenty of serious soccer played. Just ask Brazil coach Dunga, who was fired because the five-time World Cup champions didn't make it out of the Copa group stage.

But overall, the tournament was full of drama, creativity and excitement.

Going forward, there will be much talk about the Copa's legacy – and in particular, whether a combined tournament of the Americas can become a regular occurrence.

There's lots of interest, but also lots of questions. How can it fit in global soccer's increasingly congested calendar? Should the United States always host it, or should it rotate around many nations? Can FIFA get the winner into the Confederations Cup?

Whatever happens in the future, here's something to ponder about the present.

Perhaps this summer's spectacle can be a catalyst that finally turns this country's soccer establishment toward what South America’s creative brilliance brings to the game, and away from Europe’s self-proclaimed moral superiority.

Some of that superiority is earned, of course, especially in Spain and Germany. But what about England, whose soccer culture has been put on a pedestal by Americans for decades? Has the worship of everything with an English accent truly made this country's soccer better?

After watching the dynamism of Argentina, Chile, Colombia and others, you might conclude it hasn't.

The change that's required won't be easy. It can't be done in the time it takes you to drive your children to perfectly-manicured fields in gated suburban soccer complexes for rigidly-coached practices and tournaments.

Indeed, that long-cherished routine is part of the problem.

Messi, Sánchez and countless other South American greats first played soccer on hardscrabble courts and back-alley streets. They taught themselves the skill, savvy and relentless desire needed to become elite players.

Just as importantly, their families didn't pay thousands of dollars to youth teams and event organizers along the way. For many Hispanic-American and African-American children, it costs too much simply to play soccer in this country, never mind to attend a professional game.

If America's mainstream soccer culture continues to raise barriers to those and other groups, the national team program - men's and women's - will not fulfill its vast potential.

Asking so much of one three-week soccer tournament may seem like a lot. But remember all the questions before the Copa América Centenario about whether it was a big deal?

We have the answer now: It was indeed a big deal.

Perhaps its legacy can be a big deal too.