Argentina's Lionel Messi, center, and Canada's Stephen Eustaquio battle for the ball during a Copa America Group A soccer match in Atlanta, Thursday, June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Jason Allen)
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ATLANTA — Lionel Messi’s passing brilliance got Argentina off to a winning start in the defense of its Copa America title, overcoming Canada and a poor playing surface at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Messi’s through ball led to Julián Álvarez’s 49th-minute goal and the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner assisted on Lautaro Martínez’s 88th-minute score in a 2-0 victory on Thursday night.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve done this,” Messi said through a translator, “but we had patience to retain possession of the ball and it was hard to find the good open spaces.”

Argentina is seeking its third straight major title after winning the 2021 Copa America and the 2022 World Cup. Held scoreless in the first half, Argentina outshot Canada 12-3 in the second.

Albiceleste coach Lionel Scaloni and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez both criticized the grass surface installed at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, one of the sites for the 2026 World Cup.

“The field was a disaster,” Martínez said. “It seems like a springboard with the ball jumping. They need to improve this. If not, Copa America will always be at lower level than the Euro.”

Grass was installed after a Major League Soccer game Saturday played on the usual artificial turf.

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“Thank goodness we won. Otherwise it would have been a cheap excuse,” Scaloni said. “They knew seven months ago that we will be playing here and they changed the surface a few days ago. It’s not an excuse, but this wasn’t a good field. Sincerely, the field is not apt for these players.”

Canadian defender Kamal Miller also was critical.

“It felt like walking on a stage, as if it was hollow,” he said.

A crowd of 70,564 attended the opener of the 32-game tournament. The United States plays Panama at the stadium on June 27.

With South America’s championship moved to the U.S. for the second time, Messi set a Copa America record with his 35th match, one more than Chile’s Sergio Livingstone from 1941-53. Messi extended his own record with his 18th assist.

Messi, who turns 37 on Monday, created the first goal when following a throw-in, he headed a pass through the defense for Alexis Mac Allister. The midfielder side-footed a pass to Álvarez while crashing into an onrushing goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau about 8 yards out. Álvarez had a virtually empty net and kicked the ball in over a sliding defender for his eighth goal in 32 international appearances.

Messi extended his Copa America record when he ran through the center of the midfield and rolled a perfectly weighted pass to Martínez, who had entered in the 76th minute and slotted it past Crépeau for his 25th international goal.

“In the first half we did well defensively and we had a couple of chances but at this level you have to finish your chances,” new Canada captain Alphonso Davies said. “If you make mistakes they punish you, and that’s what they did today.”

Messi failed to convert on a pair of excellent chances. Crépeau made a diving stop in the 65th minute and Messi’s attempt off the rebound was blocked by the head of defender Derek Cornelius. Messi put a chip wide after he came in alone on Crépeau in the 79th.

He was shaken up by a sliding tackle from defender Moïse Bombito in the 82nd minute, but remained in the game.

“It was physically intense,” Messi said.

Argentina plays Chile on Tuesday at East Rutherford, New Jersey, then closes the first round against Peru on June 29 at Miami Gardens, Florida. Canada faces Peru on Tuesday at Kansas City, Kansas, and finishes the group stage against Chile on June 29 at Orlando, Florida.

Fourteen U.S. stadiums are hosting the tournament, which runs through July 14 and ends at Miami Gardens, Florida. Six nations from North and Central America and the Caribbean were added to the 10 South American teams, just as in the centennial Copa America in 2016.

Slow starts did not prevent the Albiceleste from winning their previous two tournaments. Argentina opened the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia and began the 2021 Copa America with a 1-1 draw against Chile.

Canada made its Copa America debut and played its first competitive match under American coach Jesse Marsch, hired on May 13. The Canadians have not scored in three games under Marsch.

“Before we played these three matches, I said to the team that no matter what happens in the three matches, we have to come out of it stronger and develop ourselves and be more confident and have more belief,” Marsch said. “I think where we sit right now, as painful as it is to know that we let this game slip away.”

Argentina started eight players who began the 2022 World Cup final victory over France, inserting central defender Lisandro Martínez, left back Marcos Acuña and Leandro Paredes for Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Tagliafico and Enzo Fernández.

Emiliano Martínez was tested in the 43rd minute, when he used his left hand to bat away a bounced header by Stephen Eustáquio.

After the final whistle, Davis exchanged jerseys with Messi.

“Being on the pitch, playing against him was truly a blessing,” Davies said.

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