Global soccer is getting a lot less friendly.
Europe, the source of most of the sport’s financial and competitive innovations, also is the birthplace of this unfriendly trend. The pursuit of more product, competition and revenue—the same impulse that led to the creation of the Confederations Cup, the International Champions Cup, the Carabao Cup and a 48-team World Cup—is at the root.
Whether the motivation is competitive or financial, the rush to maximize is real. In that environment, the international friendly has become a relic. Put the lucrative club game on pause and risk players’ health and fitness on matches that don’t matter? That’s not an easy product to sell to anyone—club teams, federations, networks, players or fans.
UEFA recognized this and devised its Nations League, a complex competition that will replace most friendlies with competitive games across a two-year cycle. It kicks off after next year’s World Cup. The concept, which UEFA has claimed will lead to “the rejuvenation of national team football," will see the confederation’s 55 members divided into four “leagues” based on ranking. From there, teams will play home and away inside intra-league groups during FIFA windows. Group winners in leagues B, C and D will be promoted. Group winners in the top tier will play off for the title. Relegation and additional tickets to the the 2020 European Championship are supposed to raise the stakes.
Regardless of whether anything is rejuvenated, there’s a ripple effect. European teams now have limited friendly opportunities—which was the idea—but that means the rest of the world does as well. Exhibitions against talented or high-profile UEFA sides, the sort in which coaches form other continents might find value, now will be harder to schedule.
Former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann certainly felt those games were worth something. During his tenure, he took his players to France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere in order to expose them to something different. It’s far from a World Cup, but it’s still a new and potentially rewarding experience for many.
The devaluation of friendlies and UEFA’s Nations League commitment (not to mention the marathon South American qualifying process that occupies CONMEBOL members for most of each World Cup cycle) has prompted CONCACAF to act in kind. The North and Central American and Caribbean governing body on Thursday announced the creation of its own League of Nations, which also will kick off with a preliminary, seeding competition next fall.
CONCACAF’s 41 members eventually will be divided into three tiers and although the final structure won’t be unveiled until early next year, it’ll likely be similar to UEFA’s: home-and-away games within a group, promotion and relegation between leagues A, B and C (or whatever they’re called) and a playoff to determine the champion. The CONCACAF League of Nations will replace Central American and Caribbean qualifying for the Gold Cup, which is expected to remain on a biennial schedule. There will be prize money and a trophy, and games will be considered official, meaning participation will cap tie a player. CONCACAF also said it plans to use LoN results to seed future World Cup qualifying competitions.
The benefit for the vast majority of CONCACAF countries is obvious, and that's important. After all, the confederation's constituency consists of more than just the USA, Mexico and a couple Central American powers.
“The League of Nations will allow for CONCACAF member associations to create, cultivate and capitalize on a truly comprehensive national team development program through regular competition. Rather than many teams playing on a sporadic basis—maybe only competing in two matches during a World Cup qualifying cycle and a handful of games in a regional tournament every two years—they will play regularly,” CONCACAF said. “For many smaller member associations, the League of Nations promises to offer needed opportunity among those that historically have lacked the tools and structure to develop at the national team level.”
More games, more development, more revenue: it makes sense for most members. But does it make sense for the USA, which is facing its own reckoning following last month’s failure to qualify for the World Cup? How does the League of Nations, and the extra games against regional opposition required, fit the U.S. national team’s needs?
First, some data. From the beginning of 2014 until now, which includes a World Cup cycle’s worth of qualifiers and two Gold Cups, the USA has played 73 senior international matches. That total includes 34 friendlies (10 against CONCACAF teams) and 40 games overall against CONCACAF opponents. The number of games against regional foes likely will rise thanks to the LoN.
“While the opportunities for friendlies within the FIFA international match calendar will be limited, there will still be space for these types of encounters,” CONCACAF said.
So some of those 34 friendlies (like the ones during FIFA windows) will become LoN games and some will remain free, although the options on those unscheduled dates will dwindle thanks to the UEFA tournament and what CONCACAF called, “the general movement in the world of international football away from low-stakes friendly matches.”
Those stakes are in the eye of the beholder, however. The benefit to most of CONCACAF is obvious. But for the USA, it’s unclear whether another game against Costa Rica or Cuba and the pursuit of this new regional title will be more productive than a game in Paris, London or Amsterdam. Different stakes and environments energize different players. Only time and a few LoN cycles will tell.
The best-case scenario for U.S. Soccer likely can occur only over the long-term. If the League of Nations really does provide the sort of competition that helps second-tier CONCACAF countries improve (like Panama has, for example), then the USA will find more difficult games closer to home. That’s a good thing at all age levels, and that sort of environment is why UEFA is content to close (almost) its doors. But that’s a ways away here, which makes the LoN feel like a bit of a risk in the short term.
It’ll be up to CONCACAF to ensure a variety of opponents (it will factor the rate of repeat meetings into its format), sensible scheduling and the right incentives are in place to make the LoN worthwhile in the region’s biggest markets. And it’ll be up to U.S. Soccer to figure out how to make the LoN work in its interest, whether it’s to give younger, less-proven internationals meaningful games or to return its competitive focus to its own backyard following last month’s disaster.