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Why a combined Americas tourney works; more mailbag topics


I figured it was time for a soccer Mailbag, so the 'Bag (that's me) decided to put one together for this week's Planet Fútbol column. Let's dig in:

With Euro 2012 qualifying starting, it makes me wonder why CONCACAF and CONMEBOL don't join forces to create an "Americas" tournament to compete with the Euros. Instead of having two tournaments (the Gold Cup and Copa América) that frequently see B- and C-squads competing, why not create a large tournament played once every four years that, in the end, will make teams in the Americas more competitive because of the tough competition? It also would seemingly be a much bigger money-maker for TV.--Jeff Christenbury, Saco, Maine

As I watched European teams play Euro 2012 qualifiers over the past week, I thought it would be nice for the U.S. if it was able to play meaningful competitive games over the next two years (like European and African teams playing qualifiers for their continental tournaments) instead of meaningless friendlies. The U.S. doesn't play qualifiers for the CONCACAF Gold Cup (held every two years, including in 2011), and the Gold Cup itself is rarely very competitive until the semifinals and final.

As you probably know, the U.S. and Mexico have been invited as "guest teams" to the CONMEBOL Copa América several times in the past. After turning down the invite for years in deference to MLS' summer schedule, U.S. Soccer accepted in 2007 but sent a C-team (and got spanked) right after the U.S. A-team had won that year's Gold Cup. It was a controversial decision among U.S. soccer fans, but winning the '07 Gold Cup did allow the U.S. to qualify for the '09 Confederations Cup, so it's hard to argue against the decision. The downside is that CONMEBOL was upset the U.S. didn't take its tournament seriously and refused to invite the U.S. to the 2011 Copa América. (Invitations instead went to Japan and Mexico, which will send its Olympic team plus a few overage players.)

The six confederations in FIFA hold their big tournaments over the next two years:

2011: CONMEBOL Copa América (July, once every four years), CONCACAF Gold Cup (June, once every two years), AFC Asian Cup (January, once every four years)

2012: UEFA European Championship (June, once every four years), CAF Africa Cup of Nations (January, once every two years), OFC Nations Cup (once every four years)

Is there any chance this schedule might change? Not likely. The Copa América has only recently moved to once-every-four-years (in the year after the World Cup) to ensure that countries send their best teams and that it doesn't interfere with South America's long World Cup qualifying tournament. CONCACAF could change the Gold Cup from once every two years to once every four and move it to two years after the World Cup. But CONCACAF seems beholden to its numerous Caribbean island members -- remember, FIFA elections are one-country-one-vote -- who wouldn't want to play fewer games if the Gold Cup became a quadrennial tournament.

Just for the fun of it, though, I tried to come up with a proposal for a combined "Americas" tournament involving the 45 nations of CONCACAF (35) and CONMEBOL (10). It wasn't easy. If we were to include actual qualifying games a la Europe and Africa, you could have eight groups of four teams composed of all 10 CONMEBOL teams, the nine highest-ranked CONCACAF teams and the 13 winners of home-and-home ties involving the rest of the CONCACAF teams. After six group-stage rounds the top two teams in each group would advance to the 16-team, newly tweaked Copa Américas.

The benefit? The U.S. and Mexico get competitive qualifying games at the same time UEFA and CAF are playing theirs. The problem? The CONMEBOL teams -- and the U.S. and Mexico, for that matter -- wouldn't get much out of those six games. What incentive would Brazil or Argentina have to fly its players back from Europe for six games in late 2010 and early '11 against, say, Bolivia, El Salvador and Antigua & Barbuda? The U.S. wouldn't exactly have a murderer's row, either: say, Perú, Guyana and St. Vincent & Grenadines.

So scratch the qualifying-games idea.

In the end, the solution I came up with for a combined Copa Américas tournament was this one: CONCACAF changes the Gold Cup to a quadrennial tournament midway between World Cups and sends its four semifinalists (and two best losing quarterfinalists) to join the 10 CONMEBOL teams in the following Copa Américas. (From the results in the last Gold Cup, those six teams would be Mexico, United States, Honduras, Costa Rica, Canada and Guadeloupe.)

What's in it for CONMEBOL? It gets added TV money from Mexico and the United States -- you had better believe ESPN would put up significant cash for an Americas tournament in a World Cup off-year involving a full-strength Stars & Stripes. CONMEBOL would also add the six good-to-decent teams it needs to create a 16-team tournament -- the same size as the Euro and just the right number so that the top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals (instead of those ridiculous "best third-place teams").

What's in it for the U.S. and Mexico? Better competition, obviously, and fewer uncompetitive games with a quadrennial Gold Cup. It's also likely that either the U.S. or Mexico would thus have significant tournaments -- Copa Américas, Gold Cup, Confederations Cup -- in each of the three summers between World Cups. If the U.S. wants to continue building momentum for soccer between World Cups, that's important.

And what's in it for the rest of CONCACAF? Being able to send six teams to the Copa Américas (instead of two) would make this proposal valuable to more of its members than just the U.S. and Mexico. (For crying out loud, Guadeloupe would qualify under my proposal.) It would ensure that countries send their full-strength national teams to the Gold Cup, and it would provide more excitement during the Gold Cup knowing that Copa Américas berths were on the line. Besides, if the new CONCACAF World Cup qualifying format gets adopted by FIFA (see below), the Caribbean island nations (let's call them Jackwarnerstan) would get more games anyway -- so having one fewer Gold Cup every four years wouldn't hurt them very much.

I think my Copa Américas idea is a winner. How about you?

What are your thoughts on the possibility that the U.S. and Mexico may not play in World Cup qualifying? We already struggle to play meaningful games during qualifying; if we don't have two games to play them with something on the line, I feel this could be disastrous. -- Carl Minniti, Barnsboro, N.J.

U.S. fans have to be concerned about the CONCACAF proposal for World Cup qualifying, which would ditch the old six-team "Hexagonal" final tournament and replace it with two four-team final groups. The result would be that the two huge World Cup qualifiers between the U.S. and Mexico might not take place at all before World Cup 2014. I'm hoping cooler heads will prevail; U.S.-Mexico has become one of the world's great soccer rivalries, one that can help build the popularity of the sport here in the United States.

Did MLS teams make a big mistake by failing to capitalize on the popularity of the U.S. team by not bringing any of the unsigned players into MLS or even a guy like Benny Feilhaber, who is trapped on a relegated team? Wouldn't all parties have benefited? -- Josh, Teaneck, N.J.

I think it's unfortunate that Feilhaber, in particular, is stuck playing on a second-tier team in Denmark after Aarhus got relegated at the end of last season. You can have a good debate over whether U.S. players are better off playing in MLS or Scandinavian top-flight teams -- the money is often better in Scandinavia even if the level of play is comparable -- but there's no denying that Feilhaber would be better off in MLS than in a Scandinavian second-division outfit. I happen to think Feilhaber was quite good during the World Cup (to use a hockey stat, his plus/minus was plus-3) and he should have started some games instead of coming in as a second-half substitute. But just when he was in a position to make a move on the U.S. team, his club situation has become a definite drag on him.

As for U.S. players like DaMarcus Beasley (now signed with Germany's Hanover) and Jay DeMerit (rumored to be close to signing with Wolfsburg), it's hard to say those guys should have headed to MLS if they could sign with Bundesliga teams instead.

Does the Twitter silence of U.S. players since the Bob Bradley reappointment news indicate they are unhappy? --@CoryMcKnight

I was wondering the same thing in the days after Bradley's reappointment was announced. A number of U.S. players are active on Twitter, including Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, Oguchi Onyewu, Charlie Davies, DaMarcus Beasley, Edson Buddle, Sacha Kljestan, Herculez Gómez, Freddy Adu, Heath Pearce and Alejandro Bedoya. After Bradley's extension news they addressed topics such as Davies' and Kljestan's engagements, Pearce's mustache and lunch, and Donovan's not appearing on Dancing With the Stars. Yet there wasn't a peep about Bradley, not even a "Congrats Coach B, let's tear it up in Gold Cup '11!"

On the one hand, I do think the U.S. players were caught by surprise and most of them thought a new coach would be coming. Bradley also works his players hard when they're in camp: Few would call him a player's coach, and the U.S. team's fitness regimen is a killer under assistant coach Pierre Barrieu. At the same time, though, the U.S. players are professionals and have respect for Bradley. Players could also be damned if they do or damned if they don't congratulate Bradley publicly: Those who do might be seen as brown-nosers. Lastly, I don't know if I'd tweet anything about news involving my boss. I'd just put my head down and get to work.

What are the pros and cons of Landon Donovan staying in MLS?-- @twhite1221

The benefit for MLS and Los Angeles is clear: They get to keep the best-known U.S. soccer star in America at the height of his powers (i.e., age 28). Keeping Donovan gives MLS credibility at a time when the league's star power is increasing (see Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Rafael Márquez). For Donovan, it's more of a mixed bag. The pros: He gets to live in L.A.; he might get more endorsement money from U.S. companies by being in America than he would in Europe; and he could argue that staying in MLS didn't prevent him from playing well on the world stage in the 2010 World Cup, '09 Confederations Cup and on his short-term loan to Everton last season. The cons for Donovan: He's missing the chance to maximize his potential by not playing regularly in Europe, and it's not like he's going to get many more chances at age 28.

See you next week ...