The Copa Centenario begins on Friday with the USMNT in action against Colombia (9:30pm ET – Fox Sports 1). The tournament has picked up a lot of hype in the United States, but hype doesn’t necessarily equal importance in world soccer. How important is this new version of an old tournament and what does it mean for the USMNT and CONCACAF?
CONMEBOL, South America’s confederation, is celebrating a hundred years of their national team tournament with a special once in a century version. Or at least that’s the tag line for playing the Copa America in the summer of 2016. There’s no consistence odd year history for South America’s championship. The last time they played in an even year was 2004. The last time they played the tournament was last summer when Chile hosted and won it. Including CONCACAF and other teams from outside of CONMEBOL has been going on since 1991. It’s the easiest way to extend the field for a confederation that doesn’t have enough members for a 16-team tournament. This special edition is also serving to reset the timeframe for the Copa America, switching from every other year to every fourth year. The next scheduled version is in 2019 in Brazil with Ecuador hosting in 2023. Why they didn’t follow UEFA’s example and put it in the middle of the World Cup cycle is a good question. For those keeping score at home, the first South American Championship really did begin in 1916, with Argentina hosting and Uruguay winning what became an annual tournament. World War 1 didn’t involve any South American countries that year, with Brazil the only South American country eventually joining the Allies a year later.
Nobody is playing coy with the notion that the most lucrative market in North, Central, and South America is the United States. There’s a reason CONCACAF keeps staging the Gold Cup here, and it’s not a competitive one. The US sports market outdoes anything on offer in South America, no matter how odd it seems to stage their championship in another confederation. That pragmatic move resulted in scandal, with multiple CONMEBOL and CONCACAF officials along with their marketing agent indicted by the United States Department of Justice. As odd as it is to stage a tournament in the jurisdiction that took down so many soccer officials, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF pressed on. That’s an indication of the importance of the US sports market.
How important is this tournament?
In all fairness, we won’t really know until it happens. Promoters need to promote. Getting people to repeat the line that this is the biggest soccer event in the United States since the 1994 World Cup is doing their job. Whether or not that holds up requires the games playing out over the country in something similar to a World Cup environment. The US has produced two World Cup environments since 1994, helping of course was that they involved hosting actual World Cups in 1999 and 2003. That’s the obvious target, but maybe the better one is beating the run of Gold Cups played in the United States. CONCACAF teams playing in the Copa America is nothing new, it’s that they’re playing in the Copa America in a CONCACAF country. Meanwhile, there’s a different question. How important is this tournament in South America? We’ve already heard enough from some of the participants to suggest CONMEBOL teams have an easy out for underachieving in the States this summer. This isn’t a proper Copa America, and it’s happening a year after the regular version. Maybe that’s a bit of gamesmanship and expectation management, but it has to be a concern.
What are the USMNT’s chances?
According to their coach, it’s semifinals or… something. That’s an achievable goal, with the USMNT as hosts expected to get out of Group A. That tends to downplay the response during the draw when most took one look at Group A and predicted real problems for the USMNT. It’s not a straightforward path to take one of the top two places that advance them to the quarterfinals. The Group A winner plays the Group B runners-up in Seattle. The Group B runners-up plays the B winners in New Jersey. Group B has Brazil and Ecuador as the favorites against Peru and Haiti. Should the favorites advance, the USMNT would want to play Ecuador as the better option to hit Klinsmann’s goal of the semifinals.
What are CONCACAF’s chances?
It’s a lot like the Gold Cup, with the expectation that Mexico and the USMNT are the top teams and there could be a surprise or two. We all know what happened in last summer’s Gold Cup. The surprise was how difficult it was for Mexico to end up lifting the trophy with the USMNT losing to Jamaica in the semifinals and Panama on penalties in the 3rd-place game. It’s tough to look at the groups and see a CONCACAF underdog surprising CONMEBOL. CONCACAF teams have done better than expected in the warm-up friendlies against CONMEBOL opponents, but watching those games suggests the South American teams aren’t at all bothered by those results. When the games count, it’s tough to see two CONCACAF teams getting out of Groups A or C. It would be as big a surprise for the one CONCACAF team to advance out of Group B or D.