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Why CONCACAF is killing the best rivalry in North America

They're killing the most important rivalry in American soccer.

That's my unavoidable conclusion after speaking to Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF, who confirmed that he expects FIFA to approve a new regional qualifying format for World Cup 2014.

Under the new format, which has already been approved by CONCACAF, the U.S. and archrival Mexico -- the two soccer giants in this part of the world -- would almost certainly not meet during any of the qualifying games for Brazil 2014. Not even once.

Sadly, I'm not making this up.

Over the past 15 years, U.S.-Mexico has turned into the greatest international sports rivalry in North America, a spectacle that has transcended soccer and helped grow the U.S. national team's popularity among mainstream American sports fans. The two U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifiers that take place every four years -- one in the U.S., usually Columbus, Ohio, the other in Mexico City -- have filled stadiums with rabid supporters from both countries and turned into must-see TV.

Last year the most popular sports columnist in America, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, traveled to the U.S.-Mexico game at Estadio Azteca and pronounced that he'd never attended a sporting event where the crowd's collective loathing was as palpable -- not even Boston Celtics playoff games in the 1980s against Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Pistons. "My trip to Mexico quickly morphed into one of those 'I'm going to remember everything that happened 40 years from now,' " he wrote.

I've had the same experience on both sides of the border. The U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifiers in Columbus have been just as memorable: three U.S. victories, two of them in such wintry conditions that the Mexican media dubbed them La Guerra Fría (The Cold War).

Whether in Mexico or the U.S., so many images stand out over the years: Brian McBride's black eye, Oguchi Onyewu's staredown of Jared Borgetti, Charlie Davies doing "the Carlton" at the Azteca corner flag, Rafa Márquez's red card, Carlos Hermosillo's Forehead of God goal, the Yanks' 10-man tie in Mexico and strikes by Michael Bradley, Josh Wolff and DaMarcus Beasley, among others.

All the while, fans from both sides went to the limits in expressing their national pride -- and, of course, their sporting hatred for their archrivals. One of the coolest U.S. soccer moments of the past decade was clinching a World Cup berth in 2005 by beating Mexico in Columbus. Afterward, players donned American flags and Uncle Sam top hats to celebrate with the fans as fireworks burst in the sky overhead. And you can't imagine what the scene was like in the Azteca last year after Mexico came from behind to win 2-1 and avoid its first loss to the U.S. on home soil. Mexican fans wearing printed "F--- YOU DONOVAN" T-shirts tossed debris on the U.S. team and taunted every American so gleefully that the U.S. fan section needed an armed police escort to get out of the stadium. (One Mexican fan near the press area shot me an obscene gesture from 10 inches away and dumped his beer on my laptop.)

First-rate gamesmanship has always been part of the rivalry. Mexico hosts its games at the Azteca, where the altitude, smog and noise give El Tri a huge home-field advantage. Last year they scheduled kickoff for noon on a weekday, the better to take advantage of the summertime heat. Meanwhile, the U.S. hosts Mexico in Columbus, a winter icebox that turns the Mexican players into mitten-wearing fraidy cats fearful of a little chill.

What's more, as the U.S. has improved and started winning its share of games against Mexico over the years, the television ratings have climbed to new heights. An average audience of 7.1 million viewers in the U.S. watched the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier in February 2009, 17 percent on English-language ESPN2 and 83 percent on Spanish-language Univisión. (ESPN2's audience of 1.2 million was the highest the channel had recorded for a World Cup qualifier.) Advertisers and TV networks love the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. It's a win-win for fans and moneymen in both countries.

The huge amounts of pressure associated with the rivalry -- on and off the field -- were especially good for the U.S. players, who need as many challenges as possible in a qualifying region where, let's face it, the rest of the teams aren't nearly as good as the Big Two. One of the biggest problems facing the U.S. is that it doesn't have enough high-stakes competitive games between World Cups. The biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup isn't exactly the European Championship or the Copa América. And now the Americans are going to play fewer important games, not more?

So why on earth would CONCACAF eliminate the two most attention-grabbing World Cup qualifying games in its region? It comes down, as you might expect, to politics. FIFA has a one-country, one-vote policy when it comes to elections (there happens to be one next year for FIFA president), and the 35-member CONCACAF includes 23 Caribbean island nations whose ability to band together as a voting bloc (under CONCACAF president Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago) gives them power in the FIFA boardroom that far exceeds their impact on the soccer field.

The new CONCACAF World Cup qualifying format may be bad for the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, but it's great for those Caribbean island nations. In the past, as Blazer pointed out to me, most of the Caribbean countries got only two World Cup qualifying games before they were eliminated. Under the new format, 32 of the 35 CONCACAF countries will get at least six World Cup qualifiers. That's better for player development in those countries, and it raises the chances for Caribbean teams to pull off surprises (which are easier in six-game than in 10-game tournaments). It also increases the money that federations can bring in with more games on the docket.

Here's how it would work: The six lowest-ranked teams in the region would have a home-and-home playoff to trim the field to 32. Then eight groups of four teams would play a six-game quarterfinal stage, with the top two in each group advancing. Then four groups of four would play a six-game semifinal stage, with the top two again advancing. Then two groups of four would play a six-game final stage. The two teams that win those groups would earn bids to World Cup '14. If CONCACAF successfully lobbies FIFA for four spots in Brazil (instead of the previous 3.5), then the two second-place teams would also receive World Cup bids. If it stays at 3.5, then the two second-place teams would have a playoff, with the winner going to Brazil and the loser then playing against a team from another confederation for a World Cup spot (last time it was the fifth-place team from South America's CONMEBOL).

U.S.-Mexico games would be almost impossible to happen under this format. In the previous system, the top six teams in the region played a 10-round tournament in the final qualifying round (the so-called Hexagonal). As Blazer confirmed to me, the new group draws would be seeded according to the FIFA rankings, in which the U.S. (ranked 18th) and Mexico (28th) are light years ahead of the next CONCACAF team, Honduras (52nd). If the U.S. and Mexico are the top two seeds, they could never be in the same group. As a result, the only chance for U.S.-Mexico games in World Cup qualifying would be if both teams surprisingly finished second in their final-stage groups and had to meet in a playoff for the third CONCACAF World Cup berth.

Reports had emerged about the new qualifying format over the past several weeks, but no journalists had spoken about it with either of the CONCACAF power brokers, Blazer and Warner.

Blazer is a fascinating guy, the most powerful American in FIFA, and the only one who sits on the 24-member FIFA Executive Committee that votes on which nations will host the World Cup (as it will in December for World Cups '18 and '22). A gregarious Santa Claus of a man, Blazer has a Trump Tower office, a squawking macaw named Max (you can often find him on Blazer's shoulder) and a blog where he posts pictures of himself with Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Prince William, Michel Platini and former Miss Universe winners. In the year 2010, it is good to be Chuck Blazer.

But it's important to remember that while Blazer is American, his master is CONCACAF. Sometimes their interests coincide, as they do in CONCACAF's support of the U.S.' bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or '22. And sometimes they don't, as in the new World Cup qualifying format.

When I reached Blazer in Port of Spain last week, he filled me in on several topics (see below), but he also gave me CONCACAF's point of view on the new qualifying proposal and how he doesn't think it will hurt the U.S.-Mexico rivalry:

• "The goal [of World Cup qualifying] is not to try to find a champion of CONCACAF. That's what we have the Gold Cup for," Blazer said. "A lot of teams got to play only two qualifying games [under the old system] and then they were gone. Now most of them would be guaranteed a minimum of six matches, which is much better for their development programs."

• "There are still plenty of forums for the [U.S.-Mexico] rivalry to exist," Blazer added, "other venues where they can meet each other."

The problems for the U.S.-Mexico rivalry here are obvious, though. First, the two countries can schedule as many money-making friendlies against each other as they want, but the stakes in those games are about the same as in a Yankees-Red Sox spring-training game. And while the Gold Cup at least provides the stakes of a competitive game with a trophy on the line, it has its own problems:

• The U.S. and Mexico aren't guaranteed to meet in the knockout tournament.

• Even if they do meet, it would almost certainly take place in the United States, which has hosted every Gold Cup final except two (1993 and 2003), and where the U.S. has dominated Mexico in recent years.

• The U.S. and Mexico might never play a meaningful game in Mexico, where the atmosphere is most intense and U.S. fans would hit their ultimate nirvana with the first U.S. win on Mexican soil.

• Chances are high that the U.S. or Mexico won't send its A-team to the Gold Cups that take place in the summers when they come right after the Confederations Cup. (See: the U.S. in 2009.)

As a result, American fans had better hope that the U.S. and Mexico reach the final of the Gold Cup in 2011, because that would probably be the only time until 2015 that the two rivals would meet in a game that actually means something with both sides at full strength. And those dreams you had of being in the Azteca when the U.S. silenced 110,000 Mexicans by finally winning a game there that mattered? Forget about it.

As I said, they're killing the most important rivalry in American soccer.

All that's left is for FIFA to approve CONCACAF's new World Cup qualifying format, which Blazer said he expects will happen since the CONCACAF plan keeps the previous 18-game format for most teams and fits within the FIFA match calendar. Blazer said that approval might come in December, or it might have to wait until the next FIFA meeting after that in March 2011.

The death of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry will not be the only effect of the new format either. The overall quality of the U.S.' World Cup qualifiers will diminish dramatically. The three stages of six-game tournaments (home and away against each team) would look something like this:

Stage 1: United States, Antigua & Barbuda, Nicaragua, St. Lucia

Stage 2: United States, Jamaica, Guatemala, Grenada

Stage 3: United States, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Canada

How is this kind of schedule supposed to help prepare the U.S. for the opponents it will face in World Cup 2014?

Imagine you're Clint Dempsey. You're killing your body to survive the rigors of the English Premier League, and once a month you have to hop on a plane to cross the Atlantic for World Cup qualifiers against the likes of St. Lucia and Nicaragua? About the only thing those trips will be good for is improving your tan with all the extra visits to the Caribbean.

What's more, the U.S.' World Cup qualifying would start nine months earlier this time around, Blazer told me, with the Yanks' first six-game tournament taking place in September, October and November of 2011 -- the last two games coming during the final two weeks of the MLS Cup playoffs. The second stage of qualifying would take place in 2012, and the final six-game tournament would be in 2013.

Why isn't the U.S. Soccer Federation up in arms over the new World Cup qualifying proposal? Good question. When asked on Aug. 31 about its negative impact on the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was strangely copacetic with the new arrangement.

"We'll find a way to get [friendly] games with Mexico, so I think that will continue to happen," said Gulati, who is also one of two U.S. members of the CONCACAF Executive Committee (along with Blazer). "The new format took into account a number of things: the desires of a number of members to have additional games at an earlier level against some of the bigger teams. So in effect it was a compromise solution. I think we would have been fine with the old system, and we'll be fine with this new system in terms of reacting to it."

The fact is Gulati shouldn't be fine with the new system. But remember the politics. U.S. Soccer is in the final stages of its bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or '22 (the decision comes down on Dec. 2), and it needs all the support it can get from CONCACAF. It needs the support not just of the three CONCACAF voters on the 24-man FIFA Executive Committee (Warner, Blazer and Guatemalan Rafael Salgüero) but also from the global sphere of influence possessed by Warner (which includes FIFA president Sepp Blatter).

Would harming the U.S.-Mexico rivalry be worth it if the U.S. wins the right to host World Cup '22? Maybe so, actually: It's hard to overestimate the impact that hosting another World Cup could have on soccer in America. But if the U.S. doesn't win the bid, then that's another matter. The most important rivalry in American soccer isn't something you mess with lightly.

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