The state of North American soccer has changed forever. CONMEBOL and CONCACAF—the governing bodies for international football in South America and North and Central America and the Caribbean, respectively—have announced a plan to create a special tournament in 2016 called Copa America Centenario, to be held on the 100th anniversary of the first Copa America tournament back in 1916.
This is great news for American soccer. This is amazing news for American soccer. This is everything we could have asked for…for American soccer. (No, I am not overstating any of this.)
The event will take place from June 3 to June 26, 2016, coinciding with the Euro '16 tournament across the Atlantic, giving American soccer fans a chance to see top-level European talent play during the day and watch top-level teams from our side of the globe at night. And when I say watch, I mean actually watch in person.
Yes, a tournament to commemorate the centennial of an organization comprised exclusively of South American nations is taking place in the United States! Of America!
“We are proud to play a leading role in the celebration of the centennial of a tournament born to unite all America," said Eugenio Figueredo, CONMEBOL President, in a release on CONCACAF.com. "Year after year the Cup has gained prestige, which has allowed the opening of doors to the football of an entire continent. Now, CONCACAF and the United States will play host to the world’s oldest national team competition."
The new tournament will essentially combine the CONCACAF Gold Cup with the existing Copa America tournament. The field will feature CONMEBOL's 10 nations—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela— as well as the United States and Mexico, along with four other teams from the CONCACAF region.
Sixteen of the best international clubs on this side of the world will participate in the biggest tournament the United States has hosted for men's soccer since the 1994 World Cup.
Finally, U.S. Soccer will have a chance to play a meaningful non-World Cup international tournament, and it's going to be on our soil. This is everything. (Again, I am not overstating this.)
Now, no disrespect to the Gold Cup, but I've been to the Gold Cup and, sir, this will be no Gold Cup. And while the United States has qualified for the Confederations Cup in the past—the one true benefit of winning the occasional Gold Cup is inclusion in that international event—this Copa America deal has the potential to be far, far bigger in terms of growth and exposure for U.S. Soccer.
There's an old cliche that says in order to be the best, you have to beat the best. In the world of international soccer, in order to beat the best, you have to get invited to the tournaments in which the best play.
Copa America traditionally features the 10 South American teams with just two guests to make up a tournament of 12 competing nations. In the last seven Copa America tournaments since 1994, when the United States hosted the World Cup, U.S. Soccer has been invited just twice, in 1995 and 2007. Mexico, on the other hand, has been invited to every single one.
It's vital for the growth of soccer in this country to keep up with our biggest rivals. To secure inclusion in a high-profile event like Copa America is big—especially because Mexico will be playing in it as well—but the move to have the event on U.S. soil is far bigger for the development of an American soccer program that will undoubtedly become younger and less internationally experienced following the 2014 World Cup.
If Jurgen Klinsmann, Sunil Gulati and the brass at U.S. Soccer really have a plan to turn this country into a world soccer power, this is the best way to start.
The group the United States will be bringing to the World Cup in Brazil could feature upwards of 15 to 18 players who are 27 years or older, meaning that by the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2018, most of the U.S. talent pool with either be well over 30 or wildly inexperienced at the international level.
Adding another major tournament in two years reboots the clock for international matriculation. Suddenly there is less of a rush for the likes of Julian Green to go to a World Cup if there's a payoff nearly that big two years from now.
Again, the Gold Cup has its merits, especially with regard to bringing along lower-profile young players in the talent pool the coaches are looking to provide international caps against lower-level talent. But if the United States really wants to become a bona fide World Cup contender, there has to be more than just the World Cup every four years, and a few tough friendlies on the slate, to help the program grow.
Having another major tournament in every four-year cycle—the World Cup and Copa America alternating every two years—would give U.S. Soccer the same preparatory schedule as all the other major countries around the globe.
European clubs have the Euros. South American clubs, and Mexico, have enjoyed the existing Copa America, and Africa has the Africa Cup of Nations. What did the U.S. have?
The Gold Cup? Yes, the Gold Cup. That's it. That's always it.
Frankly, that's not enough. If the U.S. men's national team expects to be able to actually start competing at major tournaments, it needs to play in more major tournaments.
This is an enormous start of something for U.S. Soccer. It cannot be the end.
While I would never put anything past the powers that be at CONCACAF, they surely could not have entered an agreement with CONMEBOL to hold a one-off tournament in 2016 and leave it at that. This has to be part of a bigger plan to make Copa America a combined event every four years. How that happens will remain to be seen.
Both the existing Gold Cup and Copa America are being held in 2015, the year before this super tournament, and the next Copa America is already scheduled for 2019 in Brazil. There has to be a plan in the works to combine both events into one in the long term.
This is when U.S. Soccer can really start to take off.
Make no mistake—while this announcement was made by the two big soccer federations in the Western Hemisphere, it really was all about one country.
CONMEBOL teams have enjoyed the deep pockets of American fans for years during international friendlies, but with an event like this comes more than just tickets and merchandise.
This tournament will drive big American television interest, and that will certainly come with promotion and production the South American tournament producers must be salivating over. That, and the money. There will be lots and lots of money.
For the Americans, the benefit is increased growth of the game in our country—it won't hurt American soccer one bit to see Brazil and Argentina facing off in Miami or New York—and the inclusion in an event with teams we should be facing as often as possible in non-World Cup years.
With Mexico already a regular participant in the existing Copa event and—no offense to the likes of Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica or even Canada—only one other country worth a damn in terms of monetary growth and interest in the game in CONCACAF's region, this new tournament is all about America. Finally.
U.S. Soccer is finally getting a chance to compete on the biggest stage, on our turf. It needs to make this opportunity count, in 2016 and every tournament after.