By Rex Gowar
(Reuters) - United States soccer audiences can turn their attention to the skills of Latin American players this month after a year of watching dozens of FIFA officials from the region parade before U.S. law enforcement officers.
Argentina captain Lionel Messi, Chile playmaker Arturo Vidal and Colombia midfielder James Rodriguez are among the leading players expected to light up the Copa America Centenario from June 3-26 in 10 U.S. cities.
The tournament was organized to mark the 100th anniversary of the Copa America, the world’s oldest continental competition first played in Buenos Aires in 1916.
It has been boosted to a 16-team format for the first time with the inclusion of six teams from CONCACAF, which governs soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
That the plan to stage the tournament outside of South America for the first time has survived the massive cull of top Latin American soccer officials in the so-called Fifagate scandal is remarkable, though holding it in the United States is less of a surprise.
There had been ideas afoot for some time to expand the event to the whole of the Americas and, in light of last year’s revelations of fraud and bribery within FIFA, the U.S. was arguably the only clean venue available with the necessary infrastructure.
Messi, the world's top player who added to his many records at Barcelona with another Liga and Copa del Rey double this season, will continue his quest for a first victory with his national team after defeats in the finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and last year’s Copa America in Chile.
Argentina are favorites with rival powerhouse Brazil fielding something of an experimental side in the absence if their star Neymar, Messi’s Barcelona team mate, who is being freed up for the Rio Olympic soccer tournament instead.
Chile, with Bundesliga winner Vidal of Bayern Munich and Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez their key players, will be defending the title after an upset victory over Argentina on penalties in the 2015 final gave them their first international title.
Colombia, on their day, can beat anyone and will be looking to James, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, to lead their bid for a second title after winning the 2001 tournament on home soil.
Mexico, familiar with U.S. venues where they can count on massive support having played 11 and won five CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments north of their border, see it as a good chance to win the tournament in which they have twice reached the final.
A victory for a CONCACAF side, with hosts the United States also in with a chance, would probably seal the future of the tournament as a Pan-American event.
Uruguay, whose 40-goal Barcelona striker Luis Suarez is nursing an injury that casts doubts as to what stage he will make his appearance, represent with Argentina the long history of what was formerly called the South American championship.
The arch-rivals from opposite shores of the River Plate met in 12 finals in the first 51 years of the competition, including the first, won by Uruguay who hold a record 15 titles, one more than Argentina.
Five times world champion Brazil have won five of their eight titles in the last 16 years but failed to get past the quarter-finals in the last two.
They will be banking on young hopefuls like Lucas Lima to give coach Dunga his second crown after they beat Argentina in Venezuela in the 2007 final in his first spell in charge -- when Messi made his first appearance in the tournament.
(Editing by Steve Keating.)