'16 Copa América has epic potential, but logistics take logic out of long-term unification
The 2016 Copa América Centenario hosted by U.S. will be a blockbuster.
The biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup does well on its own, routinely drawing tens of thousands of fans to NFL stadiums. Throw in the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, plus the sport's oldest international trophy, and you'll have a soccer celebration that should capture the imagination.
It already has, in fact. A quick scan of the coverage and conversation before and during Thursday's announcement by CONCACAF and CONMEBOL revealed plenty of hope that the 16-team Pan-American tournament will be the catalyst for further integration, or even a merger, between the neighboring confederations.
The 2016 event is designed to celebrate the Copa's centennial. But why stage it just once? The separate, smaller continental tournaments have become somewhat dull and predictable. Combine them, play it every four years and you'll have a competition that will captivate the hemisphere and rival the European Championship for prestige.
It could happen on the club level as well. The CONCACAF Champions League means little to fans beyond the competing clubs. Merging it with South America's Copa Libertadores would inject instant gravitas and might inspire MLS to up its game. CONCACAF would emerge from the shadows and the competitive and financial benefits would trickle down to the region's smaller nations. Plus, it would be a lot of fun.
It's an easy day dream to have. As usual, however, the reality is far more complex.
Start simply with the 2016 Copa, which will take place June 3-June 26, 2016 (during the first half of the European Championship). It will follow on the heels of the 2015 Copa America, scheduled to be played in Chile, and the 2015 Gold Cup. It also could conflict with World Cup qualifying. During the past cycle, CONMEBOL teams played eight combined qualifiers in June 2012 -- the analogous window in that cycle. CONCACAF kicked off its 12-team semifinal round at the same time. The U.S. hosted Antigua and Barbuda and traveled to Guatemala. All of those games would have to move.
In addition, the 2016 Copa isn't currently on the FIFA calendar, which means clubs won't be obligated to release their players. CONMEBOL president Eugenio Figueredo said Thursday that organizers are working to close that loophole -- it's hard to imagine CONCACAF and the host U.S. Soccer Federation signing off on the tournament unless a resolution was likely -- but there's no guarantee they could pull it off again in 2020.
The international fixture list is expanding (the U.S. has averaged 18 games per year over the past five -- that's about half a club campaign) and increasing demands are being placed on players. The expanded Copa butts up against the Olympics and would fill the only open summer now available to senior CONCACAF internationals. There can be too much of a good thing.
So why not cancel the Gold Cup altogether and, after the 2019 Copa América is played in Brazil, simply combine the two permanently? Because as far as most of CONCACAF is concerned, the Pan-American tournament puts a significant limit on their upward mobility. The 2016 Copa will include six CONCACAF nations: the U.S., Mexico, the respective winners of the 2014 Central American and Caribbean championships and two final teams based upon performance at the 2015 Gold Cup.
That represents a significant drop from the 10 Gold Cup spots available to countries that aren't the U.S. and Mexico. That's the big time for most of CONCACAF, and it's difficult to imagine Copa advocates -- assuming they're even willing to share revenue with CONMEBOL -- getting the votes they need to end the Gold Cup.
Of course, the Copa could be expanded beyond 16 teams to 20 or even 24, but then issues would arise with competitive balance. Nobody wants to see Brazil or Argentina play Guadeloupe, including the players on Brazil and Argentina. In addition, South American countries would want to host. The U.S. wouldn't benefit from the windfall like it does every two years in CONCACAF (and now confederation president Jeffrey Webb has said he's open to moving the Gold Cup as well) and may not have as much incentive to burden players or distract from MLS with a month-long trip to Ecuador or Colombia.
Which brings us to club football and the prospect of MLS and Central American clubs entering the Libertadores (Mexico already gets three berths). The addition of U.S. TV rights fees might appeal to CONMEBOL clubs, but there really is nothing that CONCACAF can offer by way of competition. Central American teams now routinely lose to MLS sides, which almost always then fall to their Mexican counterparts.
More pressing than the competitive issue is the travel. The Americas are vast -- Seattle and Buenos Aires are nearly 7,000 miles apart -- and it would be unfair to ask teams to take two midweek, 12-hour flights. No other competition deals with distances like that. Europe is much smaller (it's just over 2,100 miles between Madrid and Moscow), Asia now splits its Champions League between east and west until the two-legged final, and Africa's group stage numbers only eight clubs. MLS clubs would require expanded rosters, triple the salary budget and supersonic transport to have a shot.
Figueredo said Thursday that he hoped to see "a more permanent association" between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF and that he envisioned a "joining of forces" in the future. He omitted any specifics concerning what that might entail. It's easy to fantasize about a regular Pan-American championship or watching an MLS team try to withstand the pressure of La Bombonera. But at the moment and for the foreseeable future, there a lot of hurdles between that dream and the reality. Too many, in fact, to imagine any of it happening soon. The Copa América Centenario will be a lot of fun, but it should be appreciated for what it's likely going to be - a unique celebration. In the meantime, for those north of the equator who long for a merger, take solace in the fact that your World Cup berth doesn't hinge on a trip to Rio de Janeiro or La Paz.