By J Hutcherson (Sep 21, 2017) US Soccer Players - UEFA is pushing ahead with the Nations League, officially announcing the competition. It's a concept to make friendlies count... or something. It's tough to judge what UEFA really wants from their new competition, except maybe a good enough reason to keep scheduling international games during the club season.
Since MLS normally just shrugs and plays right through international dates, it might be hard to consider UEFA's position. They need the far more lucrative Champions League to remain in place. That means consensus from the European clubs and leagues, especially the big ones most likely to populate the later rounds.
UEFA has played defense for decades now against the idea of a breakaway European super league. That means appeasing those stakeholders while occasionally pretending that's not the motivation for continually tweaking that tournament. Those same leagues and clubs aren't necessarily fans of taking breaks for international games.
With FIFA wanting to assert their authority as international schedule makers, those international dates create a problem for UEFA in years when there are no World Cup or European Championship qualifiers to justify them. With the pressure from the leagues and clubs, why bother with these windows becomes a tough question to answer.
So UEFA came up with a solution, turning the windows into matchdays for a four-tiered league of national teams. If that sounds preposterous, there's probably not much to convince you otherwise. For UEFA, the pitch is to make all but a couple of international games a year count. That means embracing the concept of the Nations League as counting, something that could end up being a tough sell.
It's also worth asking why UEFA would create its own super league for national teams. It's hard not to notice that they're sticking the top 12 teams in their own National Team coefficient ranking in their topflight, working through the rankings to seed the rest of their divisions. They're also playing in groups within the league and using a playoff to decide their champion. Since it wouldn't make a lot of sense otherwise, there is promotion and relegation between the levels.
As UEFA put it in their press release, "National teams will thus either be competing to become UEFA Nations League winners, or be fighting for promotion and to avoid relegation."
If this is beginning to sound like an unreasonable solution to an issue nobody seriously raised, you're not alone. In practice, it's a hedge against pressure to drop another international matchday from the calendar as well as pushing against club complaints about releasing players for games that don't count. They all count now, and there's sure to be an eager group of broadcast partners happy to beam the Nations League all around the world.
Still, does this really solve anything? The leagues and clubs aren't likely to see this as anything other than what it looks like. It's an attempt to shut off their obvious complaints. It's also a way to make what's now the friendly schedule count for UEFA. They're the organizers, after all. The ones now marketing the rights to yet another valuable soccer commodity.
How this plays with the clubs and the leagues is the next big question for European soccer. It's hard to imagine any of them happily accepting any of this at face value. They're supposed to watch their players risking injury in games that count on a regular schedule now, rather than having breaks between qualifying campaigns.
That's the same issue for the players, with the physical exertion for meaningful games replacing calendar years when it's mostly friendlies. Using the co-efficient ranking means there are no easy games in the Nations League. That sounds like the beginning of a tag line for an ad campaign, but consider it from the player perspective. It's adding more at a time when there's not much of a break to begin with.
Where UEFA goes others will consider following. CONCACAF officials are already considering their own version. It's a safe assumption that they won't be the only ones. After all, this is how the world chooses to play the game.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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