DALLAS — The U.S. men’s national team knows all too well what can happen if it’s not mentally prepared for its first Copa América match.

The Americans kick off the tournament against Bolivia on Sunday (6 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which just so happens to be the same venue where the USMNT recently almost paid an embarrassing price for not showing up ready to play.

Three months ago, Jamaica shocked the U.S. by scoring 31 seconds into the Concacaf Nations League semifinal. The Reggae Boyz led for 90 minutes until an own goal in the final minute of stoppage time forced extra time. The U.S. ended up winning, thanks to a goal by Haji Wright, and then went on to beat Mexico and hoist its third straight Nations League title. But that’s a scenario the team would love not to repeat.

“Obviously, we don’t want to have anything happen like Jamaica where you’re scrambling the rest of the game,” center back Tim Ream said Saturday ahead of the squad’s training at the Cotton Bowl. “Fully aware of what we’re going to have to do and the emotion and the intensity and the focus that we’re going to have to bring from the first whistle.”

An added layer to that CNL semifinal was that half of the 80,000-seat stadium was filled. The lack of atmosphere was a factor then and it could be Sunday as well. As of Saturday, the match was not sold out. On Thursday, more than 70,000 fans packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to witness defending Copa América and World Cup champions Argentina defeat Canada 2-0 in the tournament’s opening game. The U.S. may have to wait until later on in the tournament for a raucous environment, and the team is preparing accordingly.

“It’s something that, if need be, we have to create our own atmosphere,” Ream said. “We have to come out with an intensity, with the desire to impose ourselves on the game and make sure we’re the ones who are doing the right things and creating the feel and the intensity of the game. It’s going to be important for us to do that from the first minute.”

[Related: The USMNT is all grown up. Now it has the chance to prove it at Copa América 2024]

The Americans are a favorite to win Group C, which also includes Panama and Uruguay. If things go well for the U.S., it would most likely see Brazil or Colombia in the quarterfinal.

So what is the USMNT’s plan not just to win its group, but advance deep into the knockout stage? Center back Chris Richards said it’s to build on the recent 1-1 draw with Brazil.

“When we play together, we’re going to be a tough team to beat,” Richards said. “I think a lot of times, especially playing in Concacaf games, we can kind of get away with just being individuals. You saw that in the Colombia game — we were playing like it was a regular Concacaf game [in the 5-1 loss]. 

“And that was kind of a warning for us, kind of an eye-opener that if we want to be able to compete with big teams, we can’t just play however you want to play. You have to play as a team. So I think that’s something that we want to show going into the tournament.”

For the U.S., Copa América is the last major tournament before the 2026 World Cup, which it will co-host alongside Canada and Mexico. This is a chance to play South American teams, which offer different challenges from more familiar foes in North and Central America.

“I always think it’s a different type of game,” said Tyler Adams, who plays with Colombia forward Luis Sinisterra at Bournemouth. “The South American players that I’ve played with — obviously the qualities they have, but just the competitive nature that these guys bring, I don’t know if it’s from where they grew up and what they go through to get to the level they’re at — the mentality [is different].

“[Sinisterra] talks to me about some of the situations he was in growing up and it’s just different. Like, we don’t go through that. I know some of us come from certain areas, but he comes from a worse area, I can guarantee that. So for him, like the accomplishments of making it to Europe and what that represents for his town and his family is very, very important. So I think they carry a little something more.”

[Related: USMNT lineup predictions: Who should Gregg Berhalter start at Copa América?]

The U.S., meanwhile, is looking not just to put together quality performances, but get results in the process. The 2022 World Cup was the first major tournament this group played in. Two years later, the Americans are still young — the average age of this team is 25 years old – but have more experience at both the international and club levels. 

“It’s a huge opportunity for all of us,” Gio Reyna said. “I think collectively, as a group, it’s more important that we know what we can really show the world what we can do.”

Added Christian Pulisic: “Now it’s time to prove ourselves.”

And that starts from the first whistle against Bolivia on Sunday.

Will Gregg Berhalter, United States learn from World Cup shortcomings? | Copa América Tonight

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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