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The Concacaf Gold Cup's Big-Picture Prestige Problem—and a Potential Solution

The seriousness with which the U.S. and Mexico treat the Gold Cup often comes down to calendar convenience, but a regular, combined Copa América would fix that.

It’s the evening of Aug. 1. Imagine that the referee has blown his whistle at last. The unbearable tension has been relieved and the U.S. men’s national team has just won the 16th Concacaf Gold Cup final. Maybe the Americans beat Mexico, or maybe it was someone else. It doesn’t matter. Tonight is about the title and that distinctive golden trophy, which will be lifted joyously before a sell-out crowd at the new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

The party is just getting started. For the U.S. players, this continental championship is a career highlight, a validation and an achievement that will be regarded as a cherished memory and status symbol long after they’ve retired. They’re now legends. Tonight, the Las Vegas Strip becomes a four-mile-long, raucous, real-life reenactment of that ad where some guys celebrate their pretend victory with a hotel flower pot. Similar scenes play out across the country. Times Square is jammed with flare-waving fans. L.A. is filled with more honking than usual.

A couple of days later, the victorious players and coaches parade in open-top buses down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. There’s a rally at the east end of the National Mall, with the Capitol dome as an iconic backdrop. After a photo op with a euphoric President Biden, the players head out on holiday or rejoin their clubs. But the afterglow remains. Writers and SportsCenter pundits dissect the title run for days. Everyone you know is buying “Gold Cup Champions” shirts, hats, golf club covers and license plate frames. U.S. soccer is on a high.

Yes, this fantasy is absurd, but only in this part of the world. Versions of it played out in real life in Italy and Argentina just a few days ago. Look for photos of the thousands of revelers who gathered around the Obelisco in Buenos Aires, or of the victorious Azzurri parading through Rome and meeting President Sergio Mattarella. Think that sort of outpouring happens only after the Copa América or European Championship? Then check out video of the mind-blowing scenes in Algiers when Algeria won the Africa Cup of Nations two years ago.

The comparisons aren’t perfect, and there are a hundred little differences, discrepancies and variables (including soccer’s baseline popularity in the U.S.). Those are different countries, cultures and continents. But they all add up to something that’s almost easy to miss because it’s so plain to see, and which has become an accepted, unquestioned fact of footballing life in the U.S. and, to a large extent, Mexico: The Gold Cup crown just doesn’t mean that much.

The Concacaf Gold Cup trophy

As a result, neither nation has a big, benchmark tournament to contest between World Cups. That’s bad news for fans, and could be bad news for development. For the U.S. and Mexico, the biennial Gold Cup frequently has been a means to an end. In Europe (contested every four years), South America (irregularly but frequently), Africa (biennial) and Asia (quadrennial), the continental championship is an end in itself. There, they play to win the game. It’s yet another way in which North American soccer, especially in the U.S., is exceptional. There will be no parade if the U.S. triumphs in Vegas, not even a modest one. There will be no Gold Cup Champions license plate frames, and it won’t lead SportsCenter. Fans will like a few Instagram posts, then move on.

There are multiple reasons for this, many of which aren’t really anybody’s fault. The U.S. and Mexico have ruled the Gold Cup since its inception in 1991, winning 14 of the 15 editions (Canada claimed it in 2000 after surviving a coin toss tiebreaker and then upsetting Mexico in the quarterfinals). Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama have reached the final, but not one has broken through. The frequency with which the U.S. (six titles) and El Tri (eight) have dominated the tournament leaves one Gold Cup bleeding into the next, reducing the historic significance of each. Success can still get monotonous.

For individual players, any trophy is memorable. But for those who provide the context, hype and long-term meaning—the public—what’s a seventh or ninth Gold Cup title in 30 years? The long waits endured by Argentina, Italy and Algeria to add to their list of continental honors clearly fueled the reaction to their results. And those potential responses, in turn, fuel a national team’s investment in its regional championship.

That reward doesn’t really exist for the U.S. and Mexico. El Tri expect to win the Gold Cup. It’s a short-term failure and/or embarrassment when they don’t, and it seems to be a relief, at best, when they do. Speaking to TUDN before the current Gold Cup kicked off, Mexico manager (and 2019 champ) Gerardo Martino said, “[The media] always say that winning the Gold Cup means nothing, but losing it. … The only time where those demands are not at this level is during a World Cup. Mexico has to win every other tournament. But winning seems to mean very little as well.”

Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago played to a draw at the Gold Cup

Martino has brought several first-choice players to this summer’s Gold Cup (although El Tri tied Trinidad and Tobago, 0–0, in their opener), which is probably a reflection of the demands he referenced. But there are other potential call-ups preparing for the Olympics, and in years when Mexico also was participating in the FIFA Confederations Cup (more on that below), it sent a clear B team to the Gold Cup. In and of itself, the Concacaf title has been worth Mexico’s best effort when the calendar is clear.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter faces different pressures. The World Cup also means just about everything in U.S. soccer. But in our far less obsessive soccer culture, other competitions fade into the deep background. Only die-hards pay close attention. Consequently, while titles are nice, there’s almost no price to pay for failure. If Gold Cups really mattered, Jurgen Klinsmann would’ve been fired after an awful 2015 display that ended with a historic semifinal loss to Jamaica. But they don’t, so that result (and the accompanying warnings) were ignored.

Likewise, Berhalter’s tenure will be defined by whether he does well at the 2022 World Cup. And he’s got to get there first. His '21 Gold Cup roster choices were a very realistic, sensible reaction to that personal and national reality. Resting the players vital to the World Cup effort, and allowing them to comfortably ease into the European club season before qualifying kicks off in September, matters so much more than winning a seventh Gold Cup (the tournament’s slightly later timing this summer didn’t help—it’s been staged in both June and July in prior years). And getting a long look at the second tier of the U.S. player pool, which should offer Berhalter more options and vital depth for those three-game World Cup qualifying windows, also matters more than winning a seventh Gold Cup.

The players in camp will play to win. Their effort and commitment against Martinique on Thursday night, and for the rest of the competition, shouldn’t be questioned. But the bigger picture is one of a continental championship that’s almost always defined by the other tournaments around it. The Gold Cup matters unless it’s inconvenient for World Cup qualifying, or unless there’s an Olympics, or unless there’s a Confederations Cup. For the U.S. and Mexico, and unlike their counterparts on other continents, the Gold Cup doesn’t seem to have much intrinsic, transcendent value.

The USMNT competes at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup

If this were an easy fix, Concacaf would’ve done it by now. Some maintain that the frequency undermines the tournament’s importance. Perhaps it does. But the lack of regional parity seems to matter more (Copa América’s relative frequency didn’t seem to bother Lionel Messi on Saturday), and by staging the Gold Cup every two years, Concacaf can make the case that it’s addressing its lack of competitive balance.

Concacaf has claimed repeatedly that it funds its operations primarily through the Gold Cup. That means its junior tournaments for men and women, its club competitions, developmental projects in Central America and the Caribbean, and initiatives like the upcoming Women’s Nations League—they theoretically all rely on the Gold Cup. In 2019, Front Office Sports reported that Concacaf earned well over $100 million in revenue during Gold Cup years and around $25 million in non–Gold Cup years.

That’s also why the Gold Cup is always contested almost entirely in the U.S. (Concacaf has dabbled over the years in occasional foreign forays). A nation full of tens of millions of expats and supporters with Latino or Caribbean ties who will pay to see their teams play guarantees a profitable event. Gold Cup attendance is good. The Vegas final really is sold out—that part wasn’t fantasy—and the 2019 tournament averaged nearly 37,500 fans across 12 U.S. doubleheaders, the semis and final.

Concacaf has established a dynamic where those who’d like to increase the Gold Cup’s worth by staging it less frequently or outside the U.S. must consent to sacrificing other projects, competitions and initiatives. That’s not ideal, but it very well could be an accurate reflection and consequence of the top-heavy state of football in the region. Concacaf just isn’t sufficiently developed overall, and the Gold Cup’s time just hasn’t come.

Concacaf had plans to double this year’s Gold Cup prize money, which previously was $1 million to the champion and $500,000 for the runner-up. Still, that’s not enough to further incentivize the U.S. or Mexico, and it pales in comparison to the other continental tournaments. The Euro is in a league by itself. Italy’s title reportedly was worth around $33 million. Argentina banked $6.5 million for winning the Copa América, according to Diario AS. Algeria earned $4.5 million in 2019, according to a confederation announcement cited by Goal, and Qatar got $5 million for winning the '19 Asian Cup, according to the AFC.

But there's only so much money Concacaf can offer, and only so much impact it can have. The long-term effort to boost the Gold Cup is more focused on lifting football throughout the region. That’s what the Nations League is designed to do—get more countries playing more games. The strategy makes sense in theory, but its impact will be uncertain for a while. The pandemic pushed the inaugural Nations League finals to early June, right on the Gold Cup’s doorstep. A theatrical U.S.-Mexico title match demonstrated definitively that the rivalry transcends the intrinsic value of any given tournament—the trophy means next to nothing and both teams played like their lives were on the line. But it may have had the short-term effect of cannibalizing the Gold Cup. The top players were on the field in a game that felt momentous, so this Gold Cup seems like an anticlimax north of the border. Assuming the current competitive structure continues, Concacaf will have to ensure that the relative status of the two tournaments remains clear.

The USA and Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final

The answer might lie beyond Concacaf’s boundaries. For years, it was the prospect of competing at the Confederations Cup that lent value to the Gold Cup. We all remember “on-year” and “off-year” Gold Cups—the appellation depended on whether there was a Confederations Cup berth in play. For the U.S. and Mexico, a local title may not have meant much, but the chance to play competitive matches against European and South American heavyweights most definitely did. Those stakes produced two legendary Gold Cup finals: the 2–1 U.S. win over El Tri at Soldier Field in 2007, and Mexico’s 4–2 Rose Bowl revenge four years later.

But in between, it could get bleak. Concacaf tried to solve the “off-year” Gold Cup problem by creating a Confederations Cup playoff. That drew nearly 94,000 to the Rose Bowl in the fall of 2015. But FIFA then pulled the plug on the Confederations Cup following the '17 edition, thus forcing the Gold Cup to stand on its own. It turned out that those European and South American heavyweights put about as much stock in the Confederations Cup trophy as the U.S. and Mexico put in the Gold Cup.

Germany won the 2017 edition with a 'B' team. Chile finished runner-up and then failed to qualify for the ’18 World Cup. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s successor as Chile coach, Reinaldo Rueda, was among those who blamed La Roja’s Confederations Cup commitment. It was not a good look for FIFA and when interest in an expanded, 24-team Club World Cup developed, the Confederations Cup was sacrificed.

If FIFA can no longer help boost the Gold Cup, then perhaps CONMEBOL might. A truly major, play-to-win tournament between World Cups isn’t entirely a fantasy. It happened in 2016, when the Copa América Centenario was staged in 10 venues across the U.S. It featured 16 teams—10 from CONMEBOL and six from Concacaf—and it was a huge hit. U.S. Soccer made around $80 million off the event (most of its much-discussed surplus) and was eager to do it again in '20. Former president Carlos Cordeiro lobbied CONMEBOL executives and individual South American federations and while there was interest from the latter, the former were tougher to convince.

Argentina and the USA in the 2016 Copa America Centenario semifinals

A hemisphere-wide, quadrennial Copa América wouldn’t always be played in the U.S., and revenue distribution would differ from the one-off Centenario. But CONMEBOL wasn’t swayed. It doesn’t need to inject significance into the Copa. It wants to control and protect its asset. And so no agreement was reached, and the confederations went their separate ways. The next Copa América is scheduled for 2024. The U.S. has been a guest on three occasions, but it hasn’t been back since a B team went winless in Venezuela in '07.

Imagine it’s the summer of 2024. The U.S., Mexico and Canada are cohosting the World Cup in two years, and the buildup already has begun. To prepare, the first regularly scheduled, quadrennial, pan-American Copa América is staged by the Concacaf trio (it’ll head to South America in '28). Twenty-four teams qualify—all 10 from CONMEBOL and 14 from Concacaf. That’s only one fewer than the 15 contesting the current Gold Cup thanks to Qatar’s invitation.

The biennial Concacaf Nations League produces the 11 regional qualifiers besides the hosts. That’ll add immediate intrigue and gravitas to that competition. Concacaf can continue to host a Nations League final four during odd-numbered years, and could even add titles to the League B and League C levels to give smaller nations the experience of playing for a trophy.

Why would CONMEBOL do this? Because the U.S. and Mexican TV and sponsorship money would be large, because it offers new lands to conquer and because it’s the only way the Copa will ever rival the Euro. In addition, some of its lesser lights might do well against mid-tier Concacaf foes. This summer, they played 20 group-stage matches just to eliminate two of 10 teams. CONMEBOL can do better.

Why would Concacaf do it? Because the value of a combined Copa may exceed a biennial Gold Cup, because it would boost the Nations League and because the Gold Cup isn’t treated like a must-win, history-making tournament in the confederation’s biggest markets. Short of a tenfold increase in prize money or a sudden surge in titles by teams outside the U.S.-Mexico duopoly, it’s tough to imagine how the Gold Cup might ever come close to matching its global counterparts in relative prestige.

And so it remains a tournament that, for Concacaf’s leading lights, is worth maximum effort only when it’s convenient. After 30 years, the Gold Cup exists within the space left behind by other events and competing ambitions. It’s been seen as less valuable than rest, and less important than a young international’s preseason with a new coach. None if this is Berhalter’s fault. His roster makes perfect sense considering the context. But in the long term, U.S. soccer would benefit from the sort of pressure, and joy, felt in Buenos Aires and Rome this weekend.

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