By now it is old news that the United States did not get the 2022 World Cup. The World Cup could have been a tremendous boost to American soccer, just as the 1994 World Cup was, but that is water under the bridge now, and new ways to grow the sport must be sought out. While the United States Men’s National Team has a devoted following during the World Cup, MLS is still flagging. I have two meager suggestions that might help, although I do not expect to ever see any of these changes implemented. There is too much large scale global change involved, and if you are not an American, why change what isn’t really broken? (I have avoided more concrete solutions like a coaching change or youth development, because this post is complete fantasy, whereas the two suggestions I just listed are in the realm of possibility.)
Suggestion The First–Name Changes
This one is for MLS specifically. It is too late to change established team names (well, it’s not, but fans of Sporting Kansas City, how do you feel?) For expansion teams, please stay away from names that remind people of European clubs. We have American traditions; embrace them. We are one step away from what the South Americans did in the early days, which was name local clubs after touring British clubs, which is why there is an Arsenal, an Everton, and a Corinthians in South America. For all new clubs: Philadelphia Union–good, DC United–bad. And for the love of God, make it illegal for an American team to put “Real” in front of its name. Confidential to Salt Lake City: Americans do not have a monarch let alone a Spanish one. Even Canadian MLS clubs should be banned from using “Real”, despite the fact that Elizabeth II is the titular head of the Canadian state.
Suggestion the Second–Join CONMEBOL
CONCACAF has long outlived its usefulness. In the years between the 1950 World Cup and the 1990 World Cup, when the US almost completely stepped away from football, CONCACAF was fine. It was more than fine because the US did not deserve to be a part of a better conference (and if we are honest, the only conference of poorer quality than CONCACAF is OFC.) If it weren’t for the fact that qualification to the World Cup is a near guarantee, I would not be sure how Mexico could put up with CONCACAF. For decades there was only Mexico. Now it is only Mexico and the United States.
Starting in 1990 when the US team qualified for the first World Cup again, things started to change. Now the worry for the United States, like Mexico, is not qualification, it is about improvement. The quality of CONCACAF is simply not enough to make potentially powerful teams like the United States and Mexico better. Competing in CONCACAF only hurts the United States.
The United States and Mexico should join CONMEBOL. South American is the world’s super-region, and CONMEBOL is, from top to bottom, the strongest conference in the world. There are only ten nations, but of those ten, nine have been to a World Cup (sorry Venezuela), six have made at least the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and all but one have advanced out of the group stages (sorry, Bolivia). The weakest teams in CONMEBOL this past cycle were Peru and Bolivia; there are no Barbadoses, Belizes, Maltas, San Marinos, Thailands, Mongolias, Vanuatus, American Samoas, Madagascars, Comoroses, or the other zillion national squads that have no shot of ever making the World Cup. (I am not saying they should not try, mind you, but facts are facts.)
In 2010, five South American nations went to South Africa. Although Brazil and Argentina disappointed (two quarterfinal exits), Chile had its best showing since 1962, Uruguay made the semifinals for the first time in forty years, and Paraguay made the quarterfinals for the first time ever (in the process nearly upsetting eventual winner Spain.) A few World Cup cycle ago, CONMEBOL changed its qualification process so that all ten nations play each other home and away. This raises the standards of all CONMEBOL nations, as was proved in South Africa.
There is no easy way to say this, but the United States Men’s National Team is mediocre. Really mediocre. US Football fans know (or should know) that their team will win not the World Cup any time soon. A true assessment of the US squad should begin with the fact that they got a comparatively easy group in South Africa, and even then only managed one win. In every single match they played but one in the tournament, they fell behind almost immediately and had to fight their way back. In the match against Algeria, the US barely eked out a solitary goal at the last minute to win. This may be the sign of a determined team (and an exciting team), but not a good one.
I would argue that the mediocrity was visible during the qualification. I blame CONCACAF competition for not exposing that mediocrity. The United States has a very bad habit of playing to the level of its competition. Occasionally that means spectacular performances (like the unbelievable 2-0 over Spain at the Confederations Cup), but more often than not it means eking out wins over Trinidad & Tobago or losing to the Mexicans (again) at the Estadio Azteca. The United States’s record in the final round of qualification was not awful; they won six matches, drew two, and lost two, and finished at the top of the standings. Nevertheless, the manner in which they qualified was very telling. Their play was not great. Stronger teams would have found them out as Ghana eventually did.
The fear of joining CONMEBOL is that the conference is so strong that the US is not guaranteed to qualify like in CONCACAF. Assuming that is true–a fair assumption–I would ask which is better, a US team that always qualifies but never develops to its potential, or a US team that loses to the best now, but permanently becomes a fixture at the top of the world rankings.
There are two other major advantages to joining CONMEBOL–the Copa America and the Copa Libertadores. Because CONMEBOL has only 10 nations, they always need to invite two other participants to the Copa America to even out the group stages. This year’s edition will include Mexico and Japan. The last time the United States was invited (2007), the United States Soccer Federations sent a watered-down team because (1) the majority of US players were involved in the MLS season, and (2) CONCACAF’s Gold Cup occurred just prior to the Copa America. The US decided the Gold Cup was more important. CONMEBOL got very angry and did invite the US back for this year. This year Mexico and Japan have already indicated that they too will be sending watered down teams; CONMEBOL is not happy. Sending a team of scrubs to one of the most competitive tournaments in the world is not just bad manners, it’s counterproductive. If tournament should be sacrificed, it should be the Gold Cup, but that will never happen because the US has to give its best for the CONCACAF championship and because a Gold Cup victories guarantee a spot at the Confederations Cup (a useless tournament that should be dropped from an already packed calendar, but FIFA needs more money from television revenue.)
Whatever strength the US national side would get from going to the Copa America, that applies just as much at the club level and the Copa Libertadores. The Copa Libertadores may be even more significant because it is an annual competition. There are logistical problems with MLS teams joining the Copa Libertadores–travel being the major one. It would be very very difficult and expensive for a team from the US or Canada to go to South America (or for a poorer South American club to go to the US or Canada.) Nevertheless, there is major potential television revenue for the Copa Libertadores if MLS teams were invited. (That is why Mexican clubs are invited every year.)
MLS clubs generally do not care much about international competition. The SuperLiga should be retired immediately, and MLS teams treat the CONCACAF Champions League as more burden than honor. The Copa Libertadores is a different beast though. The level of competition would be far above what MLS clubs are used to. Furthermore, MLS players would be more likely to draw the gaze of European scouts if they perform well at the Copa Libertadores. Unlike the CONCACAF Champions League or the SuperLiga, there is real history at the Copa Libertadores; the winners’ list includes some of the greatest club sides and players in South American football history.
CONCACAF will never allow the move. The United States and Mexico are the primary attractions of CONCACAF; without them the conference loses anything resembling competition. It would be another OFC. In order for CONCACAF to retain some kind of meaning, the United States and Mexico have to stay.
Australia faced a similar situation to the United States before its move to the AFC this past World Cup cycle, although Australia’s situation was ever more extreme. The nations of Oceania, Australia and New Zealand excluded, have neither the money nor the resources to provide any kind of meaningful football competition (rugby is a different story though.) When qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Australia crushed Tonga 22-0 (an international record) and then smashed a depleted American Samoa 31-0. This was bad form on Australia’s part, but the scoreline was not so much an intended humiliation as a cry of desperation and rage. Australia were begging OFC and FIFA to let them move conferences, because OFC would not help Australia develop as it should. Australia’s weakness was underscored when they lost to Uruguay in a playoff and did not make the 2002 World Cup. Australia is now in the AFC and much happier. After their surprisingly excellent showing in South Africa, I wonder how long it will be before New Zealand joins Australia as an Asian nation. However, without Australia and New Zealand, OFC has almost no reason to exist. This is truly tragic because, as much as I have been bashing the smaller nations, I do believe that they should be able to qualify and improve.
What FIFA Should Do
If I ran FIFA, I would restructure the whole system, at least with regard to AFC, OFC, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL. The competition needs to be structured fairly so that stronger nations can compete with each other and the so-called minnows are not constantly being bashed by the nations who have more resources. Who does a 31-0 scoreline help? Wouldn’t American Samoa improve if it played other teams that are at the same level?
FIFA should, as a non-profit, use the money it makes from television revenue to develop football in weaker countries: (1) football development; (2) tournaments for only small nations; and (3) aid to defray the cost of travel for federations with no money. Developing football in places where money is in short supply should be FIFA’s legacy–not white elephant stadiums in countries that have never before hosted a World Cup.
AFC and OFC should be combined. There are plenty of weak teams in AFC and OFC that can compete with one another. CONMEBOL and CONCACAF should also be combined. Let the minnows play with one another, and the minnow winners get to enter the main draw. This should probably be applied to the minnows of CAF and UEFA also.
If this were successful, it could change the World Cup qualifying, and make it more equitable than it currently is. Right now now Europe gets the most spots of any conference. Europe argues that it deserves more spots because it provides better quality teams. First of all, let us please retire that canard. There are more teams from Europe who can compete at the top level, that is true but not that many. Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany were strong in South Africa, but most of Europe tanked. A Switzerland, a Slovenia, or a Greece is never going to win the World Cup, and the competition would not be poorer for their absence.
I would want to see 8 spots given to each of my 4 conferences: UEFA, CAF, AFC/OFC, and CONMEBOL/CONCACAF. There is no reason that the 8th ranked team in a North/South America region is less qualified than the 8th ranked European nation. I feel confident that the same applies to African and Asian/Oceanic competition. My solution is equitable and fair.
And it will never happen.
Music I listened to while writing this post: Billie Holiday “Easy Living”; Leonard Cohen “So Long Marianne”; Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane “Off Minor”; Arnold Schoenberg “Kleine Klavierstücke, op.19″ Sehr langsam; Ludwig van Beethoven “String Quartet #6 In B Flat, Op.18/6 ” Allegro Con Brio; Erasure “Oh L’Amour”; Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane “Epistrophe”; Etta James “Don’t Lose Your Good Thing”; Marian Anderson “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”; George Gershwin “3 Preludes” Allegro Ben Ritmato E Deciso; Ladysmith Black Mambazo “Ujesu Wami”; Patricia Kaas “Faites Entrer Les Clowns”; Elton John “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”; Ella Fitzgerald “A-Tisket A-Tasket”;