By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 19, 2019) US Soccer Players - Sixteen teams. Games in Costa Rica and Jamaica. Qualification through the new Nations League for two-thirds of the field. Each is a new element of the Gold Cup in 2019, meant to improve the tournament. For a region that is light on World Cup-caliber nations and overly dependent on the United States for hosting duties, these changes are an acknowledgment that the status quo wasn't going to work long-term.
Concacaf is also responding to a difficult reality. With Europe turning inward via its own Nations League and the World Cup expanding to 48 teams in 2026, the global landscape was changing quickly. "Growing the game" is one of the mandates of any confederation. It's also long been a nebulous concept largely tied to sending money to underfunded federations.
Under Concacaf president Victor Montagliani, the work toward that mandate has taken a different form. Montagliani prioritized opportunity, through both the Nations League and the expanded Gold Cup, as a driver of improvement for Concacaf's smaller soccer nations.
"The whole point of getting a Nations League up and running was because I knew one of our most significant issues was the lack of opportunities," Montagliani said. "The big countries would play 40 games in four years while the rest would play single digits games and that was not getting us nowhere. The Nations League was the way to provide opportunities for everyone, and it really delivered."
So far, only Nations League qualifying has taken place. The region's 34 teams that did not participate in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying were randomly assigned four games played over four international dates from September of 2018 through March of 2019.
The top six nations (Haiti, Canada, Martinique, Curacao, Bermuda, and Cuba) gained entry into the 2019 Gold Cup field and League A of the Nations League. The next four (Guyana, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador) qualified for the Gold Cup and League B of the Nations League.
The Nations League proper with Leagues A, B, and C begins in September. Montagliani's comments about the way the tournament "delivered" seems premature with that in mind. It is true that the vast majority of countries participating in the qualifying process would not have played games in those FIFA windows.
It's also unlikely that a few games spread across six or eight months will dramatically improve Concacaf's minnows in the short term. This year's Gold Cup is certain to reveal the massive gap that still exists between the region's better soccer nations and those countries who suffer from a lack of population and/or resources. The expanded field includes teams ranked 177th, 175th, and 174th in the world.
Over time, however, playing more should increase the level of play for those countries. More exposure against the top teams might mean more opportunity for players to move to leagues abroad, in addition to the benefits of simply gathering on a regular basis. Even for the best supported national team programs, the limited amount of time spent together is a barrier to cohesive play.
The rub in expanding the Gold Cup and inaugurating a new Nations League that requires every member nation to participate is that it might depress the advancement of the region's bigger nations in the immediate term. What helps the Bermudas and Curacaos of CONCACAF doesn't necessarily aid the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica, and the United States.
Some of the recent twists in their fortunes aside, those countries are only tested a handful of times in a given Gold Cup/World Cup qualifying cycle. Friendlies are of questionable value, but it's difficult to argue that games against the best of Europe and South America don't do Concacaf's top nations some good.
Replacing those games with more matches against Concacaf opposition could dull some edges. Even turning games that were once friendlies into competitive matches isn't much of a help. Again, this is partially a necessity based on Europe choosing to focus on itself.
Montagliani and CONCACAF's leadership are willing to sacrifice the sharpness of Mexico and the United States on the altar of lifting the regional tide. That makes sense and not only because Montagliani himself comes from a country that is trying to climb back into the conversation for a World Cup spot.
The Concacaf boss can't do much about the limits of the competition for the two biggest nations in the region. Short of Mexico, the United States, and perhaps Costa Rica pulling out of the confederation and convincing CONMEBOL to accept them, the whales are stuck with the minnows. None of the regular World Cup qualifiers from Concacaf would willingly accept getting worse for the good of Concacaf. They can struggle against that possibility while abiding by the changes happening around them.
The confederation is taking baby steps towards moving the Gold Cup beyond the borders of the United States with games in San Jose, Costa Rica and Kingston, Jamaica this year. Playing the tournament in the United States provides for the biggest possible economic impact, but it's long been of questionable competitive value to play the tournament in the same country every two years.
The home-field advantage provided to the United States and Mexico via the large El Tri support in this country only makes it easier for those countries to dominate the tournament. The only time a country outside of the big two lifted the Gold Cup was 2000 when Canada upset Mexico and guest team Colombia on their way to the title.
Playing just four games during the opening round of the group stage outside of the US doesn't point towards moving the Gold Cup out of the United States entirely. It is a start, though. It might mean a more aggressive push to share the wealth in the future. Concacaf's money-first approach to its administration of soccer in the region long needed adjustment, if not to help the bulk of its member nations get better, than simply in the interest of fairness.
The World Cup returns to Concacaf in 2026. Three nations will host that tournament, with the bulk of the games taking place in the United States. The field will expand to 48 teams for the first time that year, a sign of FIFA's similar desire to put more countries on the brightest stage.
"Growing the game" at the FIFA level means the end of meaningful qualifiers between Concacaf's best teams after a tournament that the three host countries will qualify for automatically. The ceiling for teams like Mexico and the United States will get even lower, making the Nations League a potential hedge against that problem. Those nations are best served to take the competition seriously in the absence of the traditional Hex showdowns that served as the biggest regional test for each. How effective the hedge might be is the question.
For now, the focus is on building up the minnows. That's a worthwhile pursuit and one that Concacaf has long shirked. If that means the top end of the confederation takes a step back and becomes less competitive with the rest of the world, at least it might make the Gold Cup a little more interesting.
More From Jason Davis:
- Preview: Everybody else at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup
- What the break means in the Eastern Conference
- What is Philadelphia in MLS?
- The Red Bulls organization and MLS
Photo by John Todd - ISIPhotos.com