Luis Suarez a locker room leader for Uruguay, which plays Panama in Copa America Sunday

A rejuvenated 37-year-old Luis Suarez has shown he is still a lethal striker with 12 goals in 16 games for Inter Miami this season. Now, the Uruguayan legend is determined to help his national team win a record 16th Copa America title and return to international prominence after early exit in the Qatar World Cup.

Although he is not expected to start on a talent-rich younger roster, Suarez’s experience and leadership are luxuries for La Celeste (The Sky Blue).

Uruguay, tied with Argentina with 15 Copa crowns, plays its tournament opener against Panama Sunday night at Hard Rock Stadium (9 p.m., FOX).

Morale is high in the Uruguayan camp, with good reason. Under the direction of revered coach Marcelo Bielsa, who took over the team in May 2023 after four years at English club Leeds United, Uruguay has beaten Argentina and Brazil in World Cup qualifying and routed Mexico 4-0 in its final Copa America tune up match a few weeks ago.

Bielsa, 68, is a mercurial manager nicknamed “El Loco” for his relentless pressing tactics and his high-intensity training.

He was born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, the same hometown as Messi and Inter Miami coach Tata Martino. He is the second foreign manager in Uruguay history and the first Argentine, which is significant because the teams are neighbors and rivals. Bielsa brings experience from his national team stops with Chile and Argentina and European knowhow from his time there.

Uruguay sits in second place in the qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup and it is one of the favorites to lift the Copa America trophy July 14 with a new generation of players after the retirements of Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan and the relegation of Suarez to the bench. The last time Uruguay won this tournament was 2011.

Bielsa called up more than a dozen players with no national team experience when he took over, and they have blended well with Uruguay’s standout players such as Federico Valverde of Real Madrid, Ronald Araujo of Barcelona, Darwin Nunez of Liverpool, Rodrigo Betancur of Tottenham, and Manuel Ugarte of PSG.

The team was previously coached by Oscar Tabarez, who held the post for 15 years before being let go in November 2021. Former Inter Miami coach Diego Alonso replaced Tabarez and led Uruguay through the 2022 World Cup.

Bielsa left Suarez and Cavani off the roster for the first two rounds of World Cup qualifying last fall, but Suarez, “El Pistolero” (The Gunslinger), worked his way back into the coach’s plans in recent months. Nobody has played more games or scored more goals for Uruguay than Suarez, who has appeared 138 times in the national team shirt and scored 68 goals. This is his fifth Copa America.

“Luis is very important for us,” said Araujo, who is 12 years younger than Suarez. “We know what he means, not only to us, but to the world of futbol, the level of player he is. He adds a lot inside the group, and outside he is training very well. We’re happy that he’s with us because he’s the all-time leading scorer for Uruguay, a leader and for all of us he is the best player in Uruguayan history.”

Suarez said he is highly motivated to do whatever he can to help the team.

“I was left with the regret of the 2022 World Cup where I felt very frustrated by how we went,” Suárez said in an interview with the Uruguayan Football Association. “Today, having a generation that is very excited, I wanted to be a participant, I had been working and I was waiting excitedly for that that first call.”

“What they demonstrated in this new stage with Bielsa is having the personality to face things and circumstances that the national team demands of you.”

They will face a Panamanian team that has appeared only once in Copa America and has lost eight of its past nine games against South American teams. Panama is in a rebuild under coach Thomas Christiansen, who, coincidentally, also coached at Leeds. Panama finished fourth in the 2023 Gold Cup and fourth in the Nations League.

“Panama is a team that is evolving that has cut the distance between itself and its regional rivals, such as the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica,” Bielsa said. “They have players improving overseas and with a coach with a profile very adaptable to the quality of his players.”

Panamanian captain Anibal Godoy is out with a thigh injury. In his absence, Houston Dynamo midfielder Adalberto Carrasquilla will be the man to watch. He was voted the best player at the 2023 Gold Cup. Jose Fajardo with 11 goals and Cecilio Waterman with 10 are their top scorers.

Canadian player Bombito target of racist messages

CONCACAF is investigating online racist posts directed at Canadian player Moise Bombito, who slide tackled Lionel Messi during Argentina’s 2-0 win over Canada in the Copa America opener in Atlanta on Thursday.

Bombito plays for MLS club Colorado Rapids.

“We stand with Canada Soccer in condemning the disgraceful social media posts aimed at Moise Bombito,” CONCACAF said in a statement. “Racism has no place in our sport or in society.”

CONCACAF is working with South American federation CONMEBOL to determine which accounts were responsible for the racist posts.

The Canadian National Team issued a statement that read: “Canada soccer is aware of and deeply disturbed by racist comments made online and directed at one of our men’s national team players following (Thursday’s) game. We are in communication with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL about this matter.”

Some Copa America field conditions come under fire

Eleven of the 14 Copa America venues are NFL stadiums and six of those use artificial turf. FIFA does not allow synthetic surfaces for major tournaments, so the artificial turf fields are being temporarily covered by grass for Copa matches.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni and several of his players complained about the conditions of the makeshift field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for their 2-0 opening win against Canada. Goalkeeper Emi Martinez called it “a disaster.”

Araujo weighed in on Saturday: “We all saw what happened in the opener, the field conditions were not what we all expected to offer attractive, fluid futbol. The field is key to hosting a spectacular tournament.”

Hard Rock Stadium has a natural grass field, and has always been lauded by visiting international soccer teams.