Copa America kicks off Thursday. Here’s a group-by-group preview and predictions

Copa America kicks off Thursday night in Atlanta, with Inter Miami icon Lionel Messi and his defending champion Argentina team facing Canada at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

La Albiceleste (sky blue and white) are not only the reigning Copa champions, but also the World Cup champions, so they are the team to beat as the month-long tournament gets underway. Other teams expected to advance include Uruguay, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and the host United States.

How it Works: The 16-team field is comprised of 10 teams from South America and six from North and Central America and the Caribbean. The tournament begins with four groups of four teams. During the group phase, teams earn three points for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss. After each team has played its group opponents once, the top two will advance.

Here’s a look at the groups, and predictions of which teams will move on to the knockout stage…

GROUP A: Argentina, Peru, Chile, Canada

Defending champion Argentina is the heavy favorite to raise the trophy again. Inter Miami star Messi, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, led La Albiceleste to the 2022 World Cup title and since their 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in the opening game of that World Cup, Argentina has won 17 of its past 18 matches. Their only loss was 2-0 to Uruguay in a World Cup qualifier.

Messi is joined by a loaded roster that includes Julian Alvarez (Manchester City), Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan), Rodrigo De Paul (Atletico de Madrid), Alexis Mac Allister (Liverpool), Enzo Fernandez (Chelsea), Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez.

Chile is expected to be the second-strongest team with veteran Alexis Sanchez among the players to watch. Chile beat Argentina twice in 2015 and 2016 in penalty kicks in the Copa America final.

Canada has a shot to pull off an upset or two under new American coach Jesse Marsch. Peru lost 2-0 to both Argentina and Chile in World Cup qualifying and will have a tough time getting through the group, but if Edison Flores scores goals, La Rojiblanca could pull a surprise.

Prediction: Argentina, Chile will advance.

GROUP B: Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Jamaica

Once upon a time, Mexico would have been a lock to win this group, but things are more unpredictable these days.

El Tri has played in 10 Copa Americas, finished runner-up twice and third three times. But the team has struggled in recent years and lost two Copa warmup matches last week, 4-0 to Uruguay and 3-2 to Brazil, after a 1-0 win against Bolivia. The Mexican team is in a rebuild under coach Jaime Lozano, who left out some of the old guard and called up several Under-23 players. They could still advance, but maybe not win the group.

Ecuador has never won the Copa, and its best finish in the past four decades was fourth place in 1993, but this year’s team is good enough to finish atop Group B. Coach Félix Sanchez Bas has a talented roster, including Piero Hincapie of Bayer Leverkusen, Moises Caicedo of Chelsea and veteran leader Enner Valencia.

Venezuela’s La Vinotinto is a long shot to survive the group, but Yangel Herrera, who helped lead Girona to third place in Spain’s La Liga, is a player to watch. Jefferson Savarino will be well-known to MLS fans from his years with Real Salt Lake.

Prediction: Mexico and Ecuador will advance.

GROUP C: USA, Uruguay, Panama, Bolivia

The host USA is the headliner of the group and will have home-field advantage (although South American fans often outnumber the red, white and blue on U.S. soil). This U.S. team, led by captain Christian Pulisic, is arguably the most talented in the nation’s history with nearly all its players based overseas. Pulisic and Yunus Musah play for AC Milan. Weston McKennie and Tim Weah play for Juventus. Matt Turner and Gio Reyna are teammates at Nottingham Forest. But the team had mixed results in Copa warmup matches, losing 5-1 to Colombia before rebounding with a 1-1 tie against Brazil.

Co-favorite to advance is Uruguay, the 15-time South American champions, who are hungry to win for the first time since 2011. They have a good shot under the direction of Marcelo Bielsa and with Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez leading the attack. Since last June, Uruguay has only lost two of 10 games under Bielsa and the team sits in second place in the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers, three points behind Argentina. Inter Miami star Luis Suarez, 37, is on Uruguay’s squad and eager to go far in what will likely be his last Copa.

Panama and Bolivia would have to pull off shockers to survive this group. MLS duo Anibal Godoy and Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla are two Panamanian players to watch. Panama has beaten the USA and made strides in recent years, but advancing will be tough. Bolivia’s best player, Marcelo Martins Moreno, retired.

Prediction: Uruguay and USA will advance.

GROUP D: Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica

Brazil is desperate to have a good showing after stumbling to sixth place in World Cup qualifying so far. Things are so bad that former star Ronaldinho slammed the team last week, posting on social media: “That’s it folks. l’ve had enough. This is a sad moment for those who love Brazilian soccer. It’s getting hard to find the spirit to watch the games. This is perhaps one of the worst teams in recent years. It has no respectable leaders, only average players for the majority.”

The pressure is on Brazil, which was eliminated from the 2022 World Cup by Croatia in the quarterfinals. The team has shown improvement in recent friendlies under new coach Dorival Junior, including wins over England and Mexico and a 1-1 tie against the USA last week.

The most in-form team in the group is Colombia, which is unbeaten in 23 games since 2022. Los Cafeteros, under coach Nestor Lorenzo, are unbeaten after their opening six group matches in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers with wins over Venezuela, Brazil and Paraguay, the latter two of which are in their Copa group.

Paraguay has won just two of its past 11 matches and Costa Rica has won four of its most recent 14 international matches.

Prediction: Brazil and Colombia will advance.