Copa America Centenario is here at last. Apart from being one of the more fun soccer tournaments the world has to offer (sorry Gold Cup, but you're mostly bad), this year's Copa has the added plus of featuring some of the players MLS squads covet most, Atlanta United (hopefully) included.
Could there be a future member of Atlanta United stepping onto a pitch near you?
Here are some names to keep an eye on during the tournament.
Argentina -- Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hebei Fortune
Sure, players who play domestically in Argentina are more likely signing for a lower club like Atlanta United -- someone like Gabriel Mercado perhaps. But let's dream a little bigger, shall we? Lavezzi is past 30 and just chased the money train to China and obscurity. While he may be comfortable there, and is certainly being well paid, he is just the sort of player that MLS historically has been able to entice -- an older, not-done-yet player for whom American clubs are willing to overpay. Unlike other older players (*cough cough Frank Lampard cough cough*), Lavezzi still has quite a bit in the tank.
Brazil -- Hulk, Zenit St. Petersburg
This Brazil squad is tough. At the high end of the squad are top quality players Atlanta United can't expect to land like Willian, Philippe Coutinho, or Filipe Luis. At the younger end are players for whom their Brazilian clubs will ask astronomical fees, like Gabriel, Lucas Lima, or Walace. Clubs like Santos, Gremio, and Sao Paulo are notorious for doing this. So we're a bit stuck when it comes to Dunga's boys. Still, just because I have to give you a name, keep an eye on Hulk. If Eales and company could lure him away from Zenit it would be a major win for the league. He was one of the few players not to get booed during the 2014 World Cup when Germany put Brazil to the sword so that's something.
Bolivia -- Alejandro Melean, Oriente Petrolero
Fun story about Melean: he's from Miami and played college soccer at Holy Cross. He's 28 years old and has been a key piece for both club and country as a defensive midfielder. If he plays well during the Copa he could be a great squad addition for Atlanta United that doesn't come with a language barrier.
Chile -- Marcelo Diaz, Celta Vigo
Diaz isn't as sexy as, say, a Gary Medel signing but he is the perfect sort of midfield presence you need to win in MLS. He's made over 40 appearances for Chile, including 4 World Cup outings. In those World Cup starts he played the entire 90. He'd be worth the money to bring him Stateside.
Columbia -- Carlos Sanchez, Aston Villa
Carlos Sanchez is a more than solid presence in midfield. He was the target of some derision by Villa fans towards the end of their abysmal campaign last year, but that unhappy end is all the more reason for Atlanta United fans to keep an eye on him -- with Villa relegated he might be attainable. Most of MLS fans will be dreaming of snagging a future star like Marlos Moreno, but Sanchez is the more viable option for Atlanta United. He has an awesome 'fro so you can't miss him.
Costa Rica -- Bryan Ruiz, Sporting CP
Oh hey we did a Gold Rush on that guy! You should read it. Anyone who watched the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will remember Ruiz, who stunted on fools from high and mighty European squads en route to leading the Ticos into the last 16. He'd be a helluva signing for any MLS squad and Atlanta United should definitely be on alert.
Ecuador -- Juan Cazares, Atletico Mineiro
Sure, noted Manchester United fan and Mouth of the South, Sam Franco, took the time to write a Gold Rush on Antonio Valencia. And yes, signing Valencia would be incredible. But if you want to dig a little deeper into South American domestic soccer for a high potential attacking midfielder, look no further than Juan Cazares. Cazares is 24 and tends to come off the bench on account of Ecuador's central midfield being pretty loaded as it is. Cazares is a product of River Plate, along with the likes of Tottenham's Erik Lamela, but plays his club soccer in Brazil's first division. Even though his career hasn't blossomed to the extent of Lamela's, he seems to be the sort of player that could thrive in MLS if given the chance (and a hefty DP contract).
Haiti - Duckens Nazon, Laval
I'll be the first to sign up for a dude named "Duckens" being the feature player for Atlanta United. The puns basically write themselves. On top of that, however, Nazon is 22 and playing well in Ligue 2. He was also an integral part of Haiti's plucky run in the Gold Cup last cycle. He's worth more than just a look.
Jamaica -- Adrian Mariappa, Crystal Palace
Ah, the Reggae Boyz, everyone's favorite underdog. They also have the most MLS players per capita in this year's Copa for any team that isn't named the USMNT. Leicester City captain and Premier League Trophy-lifter, Wes Morgan, is the feature of the squad. And since he is presumably not attainable after a historic campaign at Leicester, his fellow central defender Adrian Mariappa would be a great signing. He's played the full 90 for the Reggae Boyz in all competition for the past year, either at CB or RB. Keep an eye on him.
Mexico -- Andres Guardado, PSV
Another Gold Rush. Signing Guardado would be a tremendous get for Atlanta United and would surely galvanize the ever-illusive Latino base of soccer fans in and around Atlanta. Guardado puts butts in seats and goals in the back of the net. What's not to love? The price tag, but that's about it.
Panama -- Gabriel Torres, Zamora
Torres spent some time at the Colorado Rapids before returning to the club from which the Rapids purchased him, Zamora. He had a nice spell with the Rapids in the early part of the 2014/2015 season, notching 4 goals and 2 assists within a month. But after that his form fell off quite a bit. Might he be ready for a MLS return? Certainly seems plausible.
[Author's Note: The True Bae of the Panamanian National Team for ATLUTD is Ismael Diaz, who appeared in this slot in the original version of this article. However, Diaz was withdrawn from the Panama squad due to a knee injury. Torres is also good though.]
Paraguay -- Oscar Romero, Racing
Paraguay is loaded with young talent. The problem is that the rest of the soccer world already knows that. The likes of Bournemouth, Dynamo Kiev, and Sporting Gijon have already snatched up talented U23 Paraguayans and will one day reap quite a bit of cash for doing so. The likes of Juan Iturbe, Derlis Gonzalez, and Antonion Sanabria will be going for heavy fees some day soon. Romero, however, is the kind of player Atlanta United might have a shot at. He hasn't played a lot for Racing in Argentina's First Division, but when he has seen the pitch he has produced. He's notched 3 goals and 2 assists from just six league appearances and has tallied 1 goal and 3 assists in ten Copa Libertadores appearances. The kid is 23 and bigger clubs are starting to take notice. You should too, if he sees the pitch for Paraguay.
Peru -- Renato Tapia, Feyenoord
Tapia is a two year veteran of the Eredivisie, starting his career at FC Twente and then moving to Feyenoord. He's had trouble breaking through at either of those clubs, which could either mean he's the perfect fit for an MLS side looking for a steal or he's something a club that might overpay should steer clear from. If he knocks it out for Peru in a very tough group on American soil, there might be several MLS teams that come calling. Atlanta United might be one of them.
United States -- Alejandro Bedoya, FC Nantes
Despite recently penning an article on the joys of playing soccer abroad, there should be little doubt that the right price would bring the attacking midfielder home at the drop of a hat. There is also a notable connection to Carlos Bocanegra. He and Bedoya were at Rangers FC together once upon a time. We'll probably end up with Brad Guzan, but Bedoya would be a fun get, despite mixed reviews.
Uruguay -- Fernando Muslera, Galatasaray
Muslera is Uruguay's no. 1 and has been since the 2010 World Cup. Maybe an extended stint in America will entice the prolific goalkeeper to move stateside? He'd be an incredible foundation to build on for an expansion team still working out the kinks in its back line. Cost might be prohibitive, but he's the sort of keeper I wouldn't mind paying a bit more for, though how Atlanta could lure him to MLS when Galatasaray competes for a Champions League spot most seasons is a tough ask. Still, watch out for him.
Venezuela -- Adalberto Penaranda, Watford
Apart from being a heavy favorite for best name at Copa America (Duckens is really his only competition imho, but still, how cool is Adalberto?) The 19-year old Venezuelan is a rising star at Granada CF, where he was on loan from EPL side, Watford. If you've been reading our site from the beginning you know that Watford is a totally awesome club that deserves your full affection so this connection alone establishes Penaranda as an awesome get. Not only that, turns out the young man bested a record from some unknown La Liga player named Messi. Penaranda broke Messi's record by becoming the youngest player in La Liga to ever score a double. Either way, this could be a "next Giovinco" sort of signing if the price is right.
[Note: The original version of this article listed Penaranda as owned by Granada but having spent time on loan at Watford. It is actually the opposite: Penaranda was on loan at Granada but is returning to Watford and the EPL next season. The author has a one-month-old baby at home so he struggles with reading comprehension and basic grammar these days.]