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Besides Messi, there is Vinicius Júnior, Valverde, Garnacho and Pulisic to watch at Copa America

SAO PAULO (AP) — Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the face of this year's Copa America.
FILE - Argentina's Lionel Messi goes for the ball during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Messi is undoubtedly the face of this year's Copa America. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

SAO PAULO (AP) — Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the face of this year's Copa America.

But there are other players to watch when the South American soccer championship starts this month in the United States with 16 teams from the Western Hemisphere competing.


With Neymar out injured, Vinicius Júnior will have his first chance to be Brazil's main focus during a major tournament. The Real Madrid player has become a better striker, rather than just a great dribbler, in 2024, which has made him a serious candidate for this year's Ballon d'Or award. He scored 15 goals in the Spanish league this season, five more than in the previous campaign. The 23-year-old Vinicius also scored key goals in his team's Champions League title campaign, including one in the final, and combines to help Rodrygo excel up front. Vinicius will also have another opportunity to spread his anti-racism message, which has given him more fans back home.


Federico Valverde is the past, present and future of both his national team and Real Madrid. The 25-year-old midfielder has established himself as a pacemaker for the Spanish giants, a role that Uruguay coach Marcelo Bielsa seems eager to give him with the national team. This season, Valverde has scored only three goals and contributed eight assists for his club, but he continues to be one of the best passers in the game.


Madrid-born left winger Alejandro Garnacho was one of the few positives for Manchester United this season — something that has given hope to Argentina as well. The 19-year-old Garnacho scored one of his team's goals in the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup final. The teenager scored 10 goals in 50 matches for his club this season. Garnacho can also play on the right flank, which boosts his chances of appearing in Argentina's team.


Kendry Páez has played at home for Independiente del Valle for two years, with long shots and dribbles that turned into great goals. The 17-year-old striker, who will join Chelsea next year, scored five goals in 29 matches in his first professional season and became the youngest to score in the Ecuadorian league. Last year, Páez had an assist in his Ecuador debut, a 2-1 win over Uruguay, in the second round of South American World Cup qualifying. This year, he became a starter and a key player of Independiente del Valle.


Christian Pulisic just had one of his best seasons in Europe, scoring 12 goals with nine assists in Italy for AC Milan. The 25-year-old striker's career now looks less promising than it did several years ago when he played for Borussia Dortmund as a young right winger, but he can still score goals, give smart passes and read the game. Pulisic also proved this season he could play on the left and even in the midfield as a sort of playmaker.


Santi Gimenez had a prolific season at Dutch club Feyenoord, making some Mexican watchers believe the team has a shot at winning the Copa America. The 23-year-old Argentina-born striker scored 23 goals and had six assists to help his team finish second in the Dutch league. His coach, Arne Slot, just joined Liverpool and could well take the target man to Anfield. Giménez has skill, power, speed and calm in front of opposing goalkeepers. Dutch players have compared him to a young Robin van Persie.


AP soccer:

Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press