The biggest winners and losers of the Copa America Centenario

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The biggest winners and losers of the Copa America Centenario
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  • Lionel Messi
    Lionel Messi
  • Gonzalo Higuaín
    Gonzalo Higuaín

You read the headline. So let's not make you wait any longer.

Yes, Lionel Messi is a Copa America Centenario loser.

The Argentina captain could not produce the goal that would have ended his country's 23-year major title drought during 90 scoreless minutes of regulation and 30 more minutes of goal-less extra time. He missed a chance at putting the Argentines up early in the decisive penalty shootout by badly missing his spot kick. And then after watching Chile win yet another Copa crown on penalties, he hastily announced he was quitting the national team.

[ COPA AMERICA | Predictions | Scores/Schedule | Standings | Teams ]

Hardly winner material. But Lionel Messi is still the greatest player ever to kick a soccer ball.

That's right, still the greatest.

Messi's failure to finally win a big tournament for his country did not diminish his already all-time great status built on unprecedented accomplishments with his club team, Barcelona. Because in the revenue-rich Champions League era, the best soccer is played in Europe's top club competition with the world's elite players, not in international tournaments every four years like the World Cup. Messi has won the Champions League four times with one of the greatest teams ever in Barca, and he's won World Player of the Year an unprecedented five times while dueling fellow all-time top-five player Cristiano Ronaldo for that honor for almost a decade.

Pele and Diego Maradona both deserved their longtime shared distinction as the game's greatest for their international achievements, but their primes came well before the windfall of television broadcast rights. That money funded the game's globalization by drawing the best players to Europe to compete in the richest and most competitive leagues. Pele and Maradona indeed were transcendent talents, but they weren't challenged every year at club level like Messi.

So go ahead and call Messi the goat for Argentina's third straight tournament final defeat. Just make sure you call him GOAT, too.

Now, on to the list of big winners and big losers.

WINNER: Alexis Sanchez

The Arsenal star won the Golden Ball as the tournament's top player, displaying throughout the skill, speed and competitive desire that inspired Chile to a title repeat. He's not the only on, though. His teammates possess those same qualities, which have come to define this La Roja squad – one that burst onto the scene at the 2010 World Cup playing entertaining, attacking soccer.

The honors and accolades were much deserved. But did Sanchez have to take a picture with them while sitting in his underwear?

LOSER: Gonzalo Higuain

First, there was the miss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final when he ran in all alone against Manuel Neuer and pulled his shot horribly wide. Then, he had that awful miss from the spot against Chile in the penalty shootout of the 2015 Copa America final.

That's why no one was surprised Higuain botched another one-on-one-with-the-keeper scoring chance against Chile on Sunday.

Argentina coach Gerardo Martino was not worried about Higuain's form when the striker went goalless during the group stage. He was confident goals would come from the man who set a single-season Serie A record with 36 for Napoli, and Higuain rewarded Martino for keeping his trust by scoring two goals in each of the quarterfinal and semifinal victories. But calamity struck again Higuain again in an international final. At least the guy is consistent.

WINNER: Neymar

For the second straight major tournament, Brazil crashed out so badly that the manager got fired. And for the second straight major tournament, Neymar got to escape the criticism by watching from afar (or this time, from a luxury box with Justin Bieber and Jamie Foxx). But his burden will come soon enough when he leads the Brazil Olympic team at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. His mission: capture the only remaining major honor missing from Brazil's storied history – an Olympic soccer gold.

Despite his global stardom, though, the 24-year-old Barcelona star has yet to earn the right to lash out at critics of the national team, according to one former Brazil star anyway. Rivelino called Neymar "an idiot" for posting a profane defense of his teammates on Instagram after Brazil failed to qualify for the knockout stage.

LOSER: Whoever played the wrong national anthem for Uruguay

You may have had other jobs to do that night at the University of Phoenix Stadium. But playing the correct national anthems was the most important. And you blew it.

LOSER: Luis Suarez

A hamstring injury suffered in the Copa del Rey final sidelined the Barcelona striker for Uruguay's opener against Mexico. He was raring to go in the next game against Venezuela and got off the bench in the second half to warm up when the Uruguayans still hadn't produced the tying goal that it needed. The problem: Suarez was officially unavailable to play and no one on the coaching staff informed him of such status.

So, as someone who typically handles frustration by biting the opposition, Suarez responded with a sideline tantrum. Team officials should feel fortunate that no teethmarks were involved.

Billed as one of the Copa America Cenetenario's main attractions, Suarez did not play a single second in the tournament. That's because Uruguay, already eliminated, left the petulant Suarez out of the squad completely in its next game, a group finale against Jamaica.

WINNER: Americans young and old

Center back John Brooks, 23, emerged as the defensive rock, making plays when the United States needed it most, while Bobby Wood, also 23, was a revelation up top, using a tireless work ethic and bursts of speed to trouble opposing back lines.

Jurgen Klinsmann's set starting lineup also allowed us to see the continued value in veterans Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones. The 33-year-old Dempsey led the U.S. with three goals and two assists, while the 34-year-old Jones provided the necessary toughness and grit in midfield. Klinsmann has said that nothing is given to young talent. So rest assured, Dempsey and Jones will remain in the starting XI until better options arise, should they continue to remain fit and productive.

WINNER: Seattle soccer fans

CenturyLink Field was the fortress that the U.S. needed for its quarterfinal against Ecuador, as a boisterous crowd of 47,322 rocked the stadium from start to finish in providing a decided home-field advantage in a 2-1 victory. U.S. Soccer likes to schedule key World Cup qualifiers in Columbus, Ohio, especially in the dead of winter, but Seattle, with its rabid following for soccer, should also be considered for big matches.

LOSER: Mexico

El Tri enjoyed the biggest home-field edge of any team, playing before packed houses wherever it went. That dynamic, along with a confident attack boasting Chicharito and Tecatito, had Juan Carlos Osorio's men riding high going into their quarterfinal against Chile.

But hopes of a magical run to the final ended in a hail of Chilean goals as Mexico imploded in spectacular fashion in an embarrassing 7-0 defeat. The ruthless Chileans happily took advantage of a Mexican side that basically gave up and had a 22-match unbeaten streak snapped.

Osorio took the blame for the historic defeat, saying "I think I made a mistake in everything." But in an upset of sorts, Osorio got to keep his job as the Mexican football federation surprisingly broke form and chose not to make a change for once.

LOSER: Copa America organizers

Certainly, the tournament made lots of money. That was guaranteed with the growing appetite for soccer in this country, as evidenced by the recent success of preseason friendlies here featuring big-time European clubs.

But things could've been so much better for this Copa America.

For one, the marketing blitz started too late. In the Bay Area for the tournament opener, there was no tangible buzz that the biggest men's soccer event in America since the 1994 World Cup was about to begin. Of course, the Golden State Warriors playing in the NBA Finals had something to do with that. But that couldn't have been the excuse four days later for the lack of excitement in Chicago. Interest in the Copa didn't pick up until the U.S. played Argentina in the semifinals.

Secondly, ticket prices were outrageously high. Face value of decent lower-bowl seats, in most cases, was the equivalent of round-trip airfare across the country. If you wanted to see Messi, Alexis or James Rodriguez in person, at least from a seat that didn't require oxygen due to high elevation, you had to pay NFL ticket prices. Apparently, gouging devoted soccer fans was more important than attracting new ones.