The story of Bolivian soccer is unfortunately all about something outside of anyone's control: altitude.
If CONMEBOL — the South American confederation — had followed their own policy, the last edition of Copa America would have been held in Bolivia. But if you read about the process that led to Chile getting to host the tournament, Bolivia wasn't even seriously considered. They didn't put up much of a fight either.
This is mostly about the perilous prospect of soccer at high altitudes, which was once banned by FIFA. Bolivia couldn't hold World Cup qualifiers in their capital city of La Paz for a couple of cycles before the ban was lifted. The 1997 Copa America was hosted in Bolivia, and it was the last time La Verde won a knockout stage match in the tournament — they were runners-up that year.
The altitude of Bolivian cities provides a massive home-field advantage for the Bolivian national team and their club teams competing in continental competition. Bolivia has only qualified for one World Cup (they made two others without needing to qualify), and no Bolivian club has ever made the final of the Copa Libertadores (South America's club championship), but even the best teams don't expect to win in Bolivia. In 2009, a poor La Verde side hung six goals on Argentina in La Paz during a World Cup qualifier, and they beat Brazil on the final day of qualifying too.
Winning with a big home-field advantage is one thing, but away from home, Bolivia is usually poor. They've lost all of their away World Cup qualifiers in the current cycle and scored just three goals away from home in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, earning only two points. They finished tied for last, 13 points behind playoff qualifiers Uruguay, despite losing only once at home.
In last year's Copa, Bolivia won a match for the first time since they hosted the tournament, beating Ecuador 3-2. But there wasn't much to build on — they lost their next game 5-0 to eventual champions Chile, then fell to Peru in the quarterfinals, 3-1.
Bolivia's best player, striker Marcelo Moreno, is not in their squad for this tournament. He retired from international soccer at just 28 years old and was included in the preliminary squad for Copa America just in case he changed his mind, but he didn't. Former captain Ronald Raldes, who joined Moreno in scoring in last year's win over Ecuador, has also retired. The most experienced player that made Bolivia's squad for this tournament is Juan Carlos Arce, a forward with just eight goals in 49 appearances.
Not only is Bolivia light on experience, but on promising young stars too. The only players who have some combination of youth and relevant experience are 20-year-old defender Erwin Saavedra, 21-year-old midfielder Pedro Azogue and 23-year-old goalkeeper Romel Quiñónez, who all got some time in this year's Copa Libertadores. It's telling that their headline player isn't any of them, but Bruno Miranda, an 18-year-old striker who's played very little professional soccer.
Doing what Miranda's done by earning a transfer to and making a handful of appearances for Universidad de Chile — one of South America's biggest clubs — is a big accomplishment for a young Bolivian player. Besides Miranda, the only foreign-based players in the Bolivian squad ply their trade in Israel, Sweden, Kuwait and the American second division, respectively.
It's fitting that Miranda's chance to become a breakout star and national hero comes in the United States, where two of Bolivia's greatest players were among the most important stars in the early days of MLS. After playmaker Marco Etcheverry and striker Jaime Moreno helped their country get to the only World Cup they qualified for — in the United States, of course — they joined up with D.C. United and helped them lift the MLS Cup three times in the 1990s. Moreno won another cup with D.C. during a second stint with the club in 2004, and Etcheverry was named to the MLS 10th anniversary best XI in 2005.
But there hasn't been another Etcheverry, and the closest thing Bolivia's had to an Etcheverry-like star — Marcelo Moreno — has decided to focus on his club career instead of coming to this tournament. Barring some dumb luck and an inexperienced 18-year-old playing out of his mind, Bolivia is going to struggle.
That's fair enough, but is it fair that Bolivia may never host Copa America again? The Bolivian players and federation aren't responsible for the Andes. They probably should have gotten a chance to show what they're capable of on their home turf during the last couple of years. Instead, they're likely to get steamrolled flatter than the land they're playing on in Orlando and Foxborough. Maybe they'll have a slight advantage in Seattle, though — it's a good 500 feet above sea level.