South America has three historically dominant nations, and two that regularly go through periods of competitiveness. Paraguay is not one of these nations. That's what made last year's Cinderella run to the Copa América semifinals so special. It's not often that titans like Brazil and Uruguay get taken down so early. Head coach Ramón Díaz got a squad of lesser lights to overachieve and take down Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Díaz shook things up for the Centenario this year, however, and loaded up with a bunch of kids, some of whom have barely played for the senior team. It would shock exactly zero people if Los Guaraníes -- whose most famous player is Juan Iturbe, a young Roma washout who barely played during a loan spell at Bournemouth last season -- finished a distant fourth in Group A this summer.
Turns out, these kids came to ball on Saturday in their first group stage game in the Copa América Centenario. A deep packed-in Costa Rica defense prevented shots, and the 106-degree head at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando sapped everyone's energy in a 0-0 draw, but the next generation may make life a lot more difficult for the likes of Colombia and the United States later this week.
Kids seemed to contribute on every single line. 23-year-old center back Gustavo Gómez, who just helped Lanús win an Argentinian league title, swallowed up Costa Rican attacks and stayed tidy on the ball. 23-year-old right back Bruno Valdez, who recently scored a transfer to Club América, stifled Rónald Matarrita's bombing runs and pinched in to cover the box. The Paraguayan defense only allowed six shots the whole game, and a lot of it had to do with the young talent on the right side of the pitch.
The real stars, however, were midfielders Robert Piris Da Motta and Óscar Romero. Romero, also 23, made a name for himself at Racing in Argentina last year. He snuffed out Bryan Ruiz in defense and helped make plays from deep positions all game, opening up wide outlets while controlling the center of the park. Romero did a little of everything. Here's a tasty tidbit of Romero making an absolute fool of Costa Rican midfielder Celso Borges.
Piris Da Motta, meanwhile, was the true revelation. Only 21, he's been toiling in relative obscurity for Paraguyan club Olimpia for the last season-plus. Only one point separated them from the Apertura title two weeks ago, but that doesn't usually make the highlight reels here in the states. Piris Da Motta started getting noticed in the Copa Libertadores this year, and he might be one of those players who starts getting bigger clubs' attention if his form continues throughout the tournament. He played in the No. 6 role, ruling the center of the park and springing the Paraguay attack. Every time Costa Rica looked to play through the middle, Piris Da Motta was there to win the ball. He completed 83 percent of his passes, managed two tackles, and one clearance and interception apiece.
Now, most of the good stuff from these youths came in the first half. The oppressive heat and a resurgent Ticos attack in the final 10 minutes made this a grubbier game the longer it went on. That said, Paraguay showed that they're no pushovers, and will make Colombia and the US earn a result. One only hopes that they can make a full game of football out of it.