Copa America Spotlight:Peru

Last year's Copa América looked like an indicator that Peru was a team on the rise. They finished third, and they earned that spot. They were competitive in all six of their games, winning three times. Their two losses were both by a score of 2-1 — against Brazil while Neymar was still available, then eventual champions Chile. They were anchored by a talented young defense that appeared to have the talent to help them to more deep runs in Copa América, and perhaps World Cup qualification.

That Peru team will not play at the Copa América Centenario. Their entire starting defense from last year's tournament has been left off the squad for this year's tournament for various reasons, and La Blanquirroja look like they could be a bit of a mess without them.

Long-time starting left back Juan Manuel Vargas and right back Luis Advíncula, plus center backs Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Ascues, are gone. Vargas is a veteran player whose time appears to have come and gone — Yoshimar Yotún had taken over the starting role — but the others are Peru's best young players. Advíncula and Zambrano are 26, while Ascues is just 23. Advíncula has allegedly been left off the team for unprofessional behavior during a previous camp, while Ascues never got regular playing time for Wolfsburg this season, with a January injury hurting his chances of breaking in. Why Zambrano was left off, no one seems to know. "I haven't talked with the manager or his assistant yet," he said about getting left off the squad. "Later we'll speak, as we do every month, but I hope my colleagues can have a great tournament."

Defense isn't the only place where Peru's opted for a big shake-up either. Legendary striker Claudio Pizarro and fellow veteran Jefferson Farfán, the country's fourth- and fifth-leading scorers, have been left home. So have experienced midfielders Josepmir Ballón and Carlos Lobatón, who each have more caps than any midfielder that made the final team. They were on the preliminary squad, but ultimately failed to make the 23-man roster.

Manager Ricardo Gareca appears to have made a conscious choice to prepare for the future with this tournament. Nine of the players called in are both 25 or younger and have fewer than five caps. Veterans Alberto Rodríguez and Paolo Guerrero are in the squad to give the team some leadership and balance, but they're two of only three players in their 30s, with the third being late bloomer Óscar Vílchez, who only has two caps.

This is a very recent development — Pizarro, Advíncula and Ascues all started Peru's most recent World Cup qualifier against Uruguay. And they've used two-striker formations in three of their qualifying games while utilizing one-striker formations in the other two, so it's impossible to predict how Peru is going to play, or what their strengths and weaknesses will be.

What we do know is that there's some promising young talent lurking in this squad. 20-year-old Renato Tapia and 19-year-old Luiz da Silva are budding prospects in the Dutch Eredivisie. Andy Polo was signed by Inter Milan as a teenager, and though he's yet to make an impact there, he's done enough on loan at Universitario in Peru to earn a start in World Cup qualifying and a place in this squad. But those players' best positions — and whether or not they're good enough to become international fixtures — is yet to be determined. All three of them have played in multiple roles, while none have become first choice for their European sides.

That Copa América has essentially become an information-gathering exercise for Gareca and his staff is unfortunate, but it's the reality of their situation. Aging stars, injuries and personal indiscipline have left Peru incapable of fielding a squad that can compete to win the Copa América, so they've made the difficult decision to evaluate what they have going forward.

Whether Peru finishes this tournament on zero points or makes the knockout stages, we're going to learn something. And more importantly, so is their manager.

Schedule & Results

Saturday, Jun. 4
Wednesday, Jun. 8
Sunday, Jun. 12
Friday, Jun. 17
Quarterfinal after PKs
Peru
0 (2)
Colombia
0 (4)