It now feels like the times before, but it was only a few days ago, Saturday, when U.S. soccer fans celebrated Sergiño Dest’s triumph in the Copa del Rey final. Barcelona thumped Athletic Bilbao, 4–0, and photos of Dest with the trophy, or with his arms around Lionel Messi, were shared throughout the American soccer community. Dest became the first U.S. international to win the tournament that was first contested 118 years ago.
And that was just the beginning of the history that’s now happening, or on the verge of happening, for a number of American players in Europe. Christian Pulisic helped Chelsea seal a second straight berth in the FA Cup final, also on Saturday, defeating his U.S. teammate, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, and Manchester City. There’s a consolation prize for Steffen, however. He’ll likely start England’s League Cup final on Sunday, and he’ll almost certainly be lifting the Premier League trophy at the end of the season (if Manchester City isn't spectacularly booted from the competition first).
Oh, and by the way, both Pulisic and Steffen are still in contention to win the UEFA Champions League as well (if Chelsea and Man City aren’t spectacularly booted from the competition first).
Meanwhile, although Juventus’ nine-year grip on the Serie A crown may be loosening, the Bianconeri and its U.S. midfielder, Weston McKennie, are scheduled to contest the Coppa Italia final on May 19. And that’s not all. More U.S. internationals like Bryan Reynolds, Giovanni Reyna, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, Timothy Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are still in contention for significant honors over the next few weeks. It’s a watershed season, a moment unlikely any that we’ve seen in the history of U.S. soccer.
It took a long time, many years of fits and starts and of players going abroad to small teams in modest or unwelcome environments, to reach this point. The U.S. national team that will commence World Cup qualifying this September is anchored by a cohort of young, talented players with the sort of top-tier professional seasoning and experience that seemed unlikely, if not impossible, only a few years ago. And now, just as Americans are starting to find their footing at the sport’s biggest clubs, an earthquake threatens to shatter the structure on which they stand.
The ripples from Sunday night’s European Super League announcement may turn out to be tidal waves. And those waves very well could reach U.S. shores, which may be fair and fitting considering the level of American involvement in the controversial venture. The Super League, to which 12 English, Spanish and Italian clubs have signed on as permanent members, will be underwritten by a U.S. bank and will feature four teams (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and AC Milan) with U.S. owners.
They’ve signaled their intention to go to war with the football powers that be. They’ve also signaled their willingness to accept the consequences of that war and the potential obliteration of the organization that’s underpinned the sport for decades. Ultimately, this showdown between the 12 breakaway clubs (with 20 planned) and the governing bodies will become a global game of chicken. To what extent will FIFA and UEFA go to protect their dominion over the sport? If they go all the way, as they’ve already threatened to do, the U.S. national team could be caught in the crossfire. The first four players mentioned here—Dest, Pulisic, Steffen and McKennie—play for Super League clubs. If those clubs are expelled from soccer’s competitive structure, there may be an effort to ban those four from wearing a U.S. jersey.
For years, U.S. fans, coaches and administrators longed for the day when U.S. players might be competing at the Champions level. Now, because of the hubris and greed at some of those clubs, that progress could cost the USA just as it was prepared to benefit.
Nobody on this side of the world is speaking on the record at the moment. The U.S. Soccer Federation and Concacaf are waiting to gather more information and to see where the first battle lines are drawn. But a statement issued in January, when there was considerable Super League noise, still stands. It was signed by FIFA president Gianni Infantino and the presidents of each of the six continental confederations.
“Any club or player involved in such a [breakaway] competition would as a consequence not be allowed to participate in any competition organized by FIFA or their respective confederation,” it read, in part.
It’s understood that Concacaf and its president, Victor Montagliani of Canada, remain firmly in FIFA and UEFA’s corner and likely will support any sanction that protects the integrity of the current governing and competitive structure. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter intends to rest many of his first-choice European players during this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup. But if an international ban on Super League players is enacted soon, it could impact June's Nations League finals or, more importantly, this September's World Cup qualifiers. If it became an issue at that latter point, it would be a massive story.
UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin already has said that Super League players will be prohibited from playing for their national teams. UEFA controls this summer’s European Championship, but the World Cup and its qualifiers are FIFA’s call. A FIFA statement issued late Sunday expressed its “disapproval” of the Super League while stopping short of outlining specific sanctions. Infantino is expected to address this week’s UEFA Congress soon, perhaps as early as Tuesday.
The Super League represents an assault on the game’s power center. Its launch also would impact FIFA’s bottom line, as Infantino has been championing a biennial 24-team Club World Cup that effectively would be undercut by the Super League. The question facing Infantino and FIFA’s members is this: Are they willing to threaten their own golden goose, the World Cup, in order to defend the existing structures, set a binding precedent and protect their Club World Cup project? A World Cup without players from the Super League clubs would be a shell of its potential self, and it would rob the likes of Spain, England, Italy, Brazil and others of a significant portion of their first-choice squad—not to mention the USA of its starting quartet, at least.
Perhaps a World Cup ban would galvanize a sufficient number of Super League players to protest, strike or seek employment elsewhere. Playing international football and participating in a World Cup surely is a more common dream than playing in a closed, elitist and repetitive Super League. Or some might feel that the security and riches promised by the Super League are enough to replace representing one’s country. This is uncharted territory, and the consequences of Sunday’s supernova, both anticipated and unintended, will be far-reaching. The solidarity demonstrated in that January statement may not extend to every national federation. Some won’t care about Europe’s governance issues. Broadcast partners and sponsors, who spend millions to be associated with the World Cup, may have something to say in court if FIFA devalues the competition by banning dozens of stars. And affected players and their agents, among others, almost certainly will file suit against FIFA claiming restraint of trade, etc., in an effort to have it both ways. It’s not the players’ fault, after all, that their employers have taken this historic step.
The threads are numerous and tangled. It’s still possible that some or all of this may be an elaborate negotiating ploy on the clubs’ part, or that FIFA’s leverage is minimal in the end. What does seem certain is that as this plays out, the effects will be felt far beyond Europe—and that as an increasingly influential participant in the global game, the U.S. isn’t immune. It’s cohosting a World Cup in five years and hoping to do damage at one in 2022. It will want everyone at their best for both. But for now, the international future of four of the USA’s most influential players is part of the fallout of this weekend’s Super League blast.
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