Sunday, July 16, 2017

Time to Combine Copas

Last year, we saw an incredible soccer tournament, as the best teams across the Americas met in the Copa America Centenario.  It got so many people (me being one of them) thinking how great it would be if the combined tournament became a permanent arrangement.  And now I'm seeing that they're planning on expanding both tournaments.  That's even more reason to just combine them.

The Copa America Centenario featured 16 teams--all 10 from CONMEBOL and six from CONCACAF.  Largely because of the success of that tournament, CONMEBOL announced in April that it would make the 16-team field permanent, starting with the 2019 edition in Brazil.  Which means that instead of inviting just one additional team other than Mexico (which participates in every Copa America), now they have to add six.

It's likely that the United States will also snag an invitation to the 2019 Copa America.  But the other four invitations will apparently go to European powerhouses, although Japan and Australia have also been mentioned.  In any event, Portugal would likely be included, pretty much for the sole reason of having Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar in the same tournament.  (They already have that tournament.  It's called the World Cup.)

Except here's the kicker (and the obvious flaw with this plan), they'd only be able to do it in 2019!  FIFA wants Copa America to be in the same year as the Euro, so CONMEBOL also agreed to that change.  Starting in 2020, Copa America will be moved to the even year and played in the same year as the Euros.  So, if the tournaments are in the same year, they obviously won't be able to involve European teams (who, by the way, have no business playing for the championship of the Americas in the first place!).

Of course, the fact that there's only 10 teams in CONMEBOL has always made the Copa America somewhat awkward anyway.  And it's why the idea of combining the Gold Cup and Copa America into one makes so much sense.  Especially with the cycle changing from odd years to the non-World Cup even year.

I'm not opposed to the idea of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.  In fact, I think it should be used as a qualifying tournament.  The eight teams that make the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup qualify for Copa America.  The South American teams, meanwhile, actually have to qualify, since only eight of the 10 would be in the final tournament.

This suggestion isn't that extreme.  It's essentially the same thing they did for the Copa America Centenario, which everyone agrees was tremendous on a number of levels.  That's why the talk of a combined event started in the first place.  And it makes sense, too.  Because, let's face it, the quality of play in the Gold Cup is not a very high level.  Which is part of the reason the Copa America Centenario was so great.  The competition was simply better.

And if we thought the 12-team Gold Cup was bad, get ready for it to get even worse.  Because the Gold Cup is also expanding.  Starting in 2019, the Gold Cup will feature 16 teams instead of 12.  Why?  I don't know.  No offense to them, but we don't need four more Martiniques and French Guianas further watering down the tournament (also, how did Trinidad & Tobago not qualify?).  

World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF is a joke until you get to the Hex, mainly because these are the teams that the United States and Mexico and Costa Rica have to play.  Sure, expanding the field from 12 to 16 gives those lower-level teams more of a chance to qualify for the main event, but as we see in the Confederations Cup, their chances of being competitive are still pretty slim.  And that doesn't help anybody.

What the United States and Mexico need is to play more games against better teams.  And that's not gonna happen by expanding the Gold Cup.  Because, as we've seen with the incredibly flawed yet still used religiously FIFA rankings, you don't get any credit for beating CONCACAF opponents (even though you have to, seeing as you're in the same region).  For their rankings to go up (and, frankly, to have a better shot at the World Cup), they need to play Colombia and Uruguay, not El Salvador and Jamaica.

Can the Gold Cup and the expanded Copa America coexist?  Yes.  But, if the Copa America is going to expand, it needs to become a true regional championship.  Then it'll really mean something if the U.S. or Mexico wins it.  And, on the flip side, I think South Americas would be able to stomach that more than seeing a European team win the Copa America.  

After all, the Americas are combined in every other sport, and the Pan Am Games.  Why not soccer, too?  Make the Copa America the championship for all of the Americas.

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