Uruguay puts away Panama 3-1 in Copa America, takes lead over USA in Group C

Uruguay, the smallest Spanish speaking nation in South America with a population of 3.4 million, is known for punching way above its weight on the soccer field with two World Cup trophies, two world championships and 15 Copa America titles.

Only Argentina (pop. 46 million) has won as many Copas.

The first recorded game in Uruguay was played in 1901 and Uruguay won the inaugural Copa America in 1916 and the first World Cup in 1930. That rich soccer history is a source of great pride for Uruguayans worldwide, and it was evident in the crowd of 33,425 at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday night as Uruguay beat Panama 3-1 in their Copa America group stage opener.

With the win, Uruguay sits in first place in Group C, just ahead of the United States, which beat Bolivia 2-0 in the earlier game in Arlington, Texas. Each team plays three group games and the top two advance to the knockout round.

The smell of Uruguayan grilled steak (asado) filled the air in the stadium parking lots as tens of thousands of fans decked in all things light blue danced and sang. There were red-clad Panamanians in attendance, as well, but they were outnumbered.

Uruguay is aiming for its first Copa America title since 2011 and entered the tournament as one of the favorites under coach Marcelo Bielsa, a legendary Argentine coach who took over a year ago. His aggressive, high-pressing strategy smothers opponents and resulted in back-to-back World Cup qualifying wins over Argentina and Brazil last fall.

Uruguay outshot Panama 20-10 on Sunday and had seven shots on frame compared to three for Panama.

“Our team established that we were superior in the first half, and should have scored more goals before halftime,” Bielsa said. “In the second half there were 15 minutes where we did not play well and Panama dominated that segment of the game, created some situations that could have made things complicated for us. Later we dominated again, and the result represented what happened on the field.”

Despite the victory, Bielsa said he was disappointed that “an inferior team was able to dominate us for 15 minutes” and stressed that just because his roster is loaded with players from Europe’s top leagues, it does not guarantee Uruguay will vie for the Copa America title.

Left winger Maximilano Araujo, who plays for Toluca in Mexico, opened the scoring for Uruguay in the 16th minute with a strong left-footed strike from just outside the box.

Panama managed to keep Uruguay in check after that for most of the game, but then Liverpool star Darwin Nunez, who scored a hat trick in a Copa warmup match against Mexico a few weeks ago, scored on a left-footed shot at the 85-minute mark.

Uruguay was on the fast break, the ball bounced off the shoulder of a Panama defender and into the path of Nunez, who launched the shot with his left foot. Nunez had three scoring chances in the first half but failed to convert. Two were blocked at close range by Panamanian goalkeeper Orlando Mosquera of Maccabi Tel Aviv and one attempt was thwarted by a quick-footed defender.

Matias Vina added a third for Uruguay with a header in added time, and Panama avoided a shutout when defender Michael Murillo knocked in a goal less than a minute before the final whistle. Murillo, who plays for Marseille in France, is the only Panamanian player in Europe’s top five leagues.

Three of the most experienced Uruguay players — all-time leading scorer Luis Suarez, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Jose Maria Gimenez — started the game on the bench. Gimenez replaced Ronald Araujo at halftime. Betancur went in for Federico Valverde in the 85th minute.

Suarez, who got an ovation from the crowd when he was shown on the big screen, did not get in the game. His Inter Miami teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Marcelo Weigandt, Diego Gomez and Fede Redondo were watching the game from a suite.

Bielsa, ushering in a new generation of players, left 37-year-old Suarez off the roster for the first two rounds of World Cup qualifying last fall. But “El Pistolero” (The Gunslinger) has been on fire at Inter Miami with 12 goals in 16 games, and Bielsa decided to add him to the Copa roster. Suarez has scored 68 goals in 138 appearances with the national team.

Panama faces Team USA on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (6 p.m., FOX). Uruguay plays Bolivia on Thursday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (9 p.m., FOX).