May 1, 2014, 4:24 PM EST
One of soccer’s worst kept secrets is a secret no more. South American soccer will be invading the U.S. in 2016, bringing its confederation championship to the United States for a joint CONMEBOL-CONCACAF Copa America. The details still need to be worked out, but the 16-team tournament is set to combine South America’s 10 teams with six from the northern half of the hemisphere. Copa America Centenario, as they’re calling it, could be the most prestigious competition in the States since the 2003 Women’s World Cup, the most anticipated since the 1999 women’s championship, and, in terms of overall popularity, end up being second only to the 1994 World Cup.
It’s easy to embrace those dreams now, two years from the event. We can see the seats teams like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have filled in the United States and use that to fuel dreams of a globally significant competition. This isn’t the Gold Cup, which has trouble resonating beyond soccer hardcores, and it isn’t the Women’s World Cup, which too many still won’t give a chance. This is an event that will have Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Agüero and Arturo Vidal. It enthrall draw those that dismiss MLS. It will entice people who prefer Spain and Italy to Premier League soccer.
It’s hard to imagine a North America-based men’s soccer fan that won’t be excited by this event, but that doesn’t totally answer the obvious question: Why? Why is this event coming to the United States? This is the South American championship, isn’t it? Certainly, there’s a tradition of CONCACAF teams rounding out Copa America’s field, but the tournament still happens in South America. Why is CONMEBOL’s championship going to be waged on CONCACAF’s turf?
For the 100-year anniversary of the continental title, CONMEBOL clearly wants to do something special. That’s why they’re waging the quadrennial tournament in an off-year, after all. As evidenced by all the stadiums that sell out for visits from the Seleçao and Albiceleste, there’s a huge demand to see South America’s giants in this part of the world. And by including Mexico and the United States, the commercial opportunities for the competition explode. If you’re going to have the tournament in a special year, might was well be in a special place.
It’s that sentiment that gets to be the heart of this announcement: In the soccer world, there’s still no place as special as the United States. There are more hallowed grounds, and there are a number of nations around the world that have more colorful and robust traditions, yet the U.S. still holds the distinction of being the soccer world’s holy grail. As a nation, we’re not in love with the sport yet, but we have one of the most passionate sports markets in the world. It’s not only a matter of entities like CONMEBOL — as well as the myriad huge European clubs that tour here every year — looking at the U.S. and saying “if only we could tap into that.” Those actors have a chance to frame how U.S. soccer develops.
Some people, besmirched, see that view as patronizing. U.S. soccer has its own soccer culture. The idea that South America or Europe can come in and instill their own, even in part, is insulting. If the United States is a type of holy grail — one of the few remaining places on the planet that soccer has yet to conquer — it’s a holy grail that will be protected by the people on the ground. Soccer is a growth opportunity in the U.S. It’s not a charity case.
All of that may be true, but the view undercuts the country’s potential. The U.S. can have a major, vibrant culture for domestic soccer, one that will always see the national teams as a focal point for the sport. It can also have a huge, eastern-looking group that will always love the standards and history of the European game. At the same time, it can have millions that look south to embrace the passion and traditions of the Latin and South Americans games. And in time, as leagues in Japan, South Korea, and China grow, we’ll have people who stay up until 2 a.m. Eastern to watch Guangzhou face Kashima in Champions League.
For fans in the United States, that’s what this tournament could be about. As much as the talents of Messi and the prestige of Brazil may dominate headlines, the subtext will be about the future. If a Copa America in the United States can meet our loftiest expectations, it will establish the country as the target location for any prestigious competition, be that a confederation title, club tournamenst, or a potential summer league of European teams that’s been hinted at by the Champions Cup. Whereas FIFA’s decision to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States was met with questions about potential apathy, the world is now racing to leverage two decades of growth.
There as never been a better time to be a soccer fan in the United States, and between the growth of Major League Soccer, the huge access to the club game on television, and events like Copa America’s Centenario, there may be no better place in the world to absorb the game. If Copa is successful, it will get even better.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:59 PM EST
On Sunday, AC Milan will play host to rivals Inter Milan in “derby della Madonnina”, and Roberto Mancini is back.
Premier League Saturday highlights: Manchester United skirts by Arsenal, Newcastle gets fifth straight win
Nov 22, 2014, 10:41 PM EST
Watch Premier League highlights from all of Saturday’s Round 12 games.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:47 PM EST
New York Red Bulls’ Designated Player Tim Cahill is far from doubting his team’s capabilities against the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Championship on Sunday.
Nov 22, 2014, 7:56 PM EST
La Liga weekend roundup, as it stands now.
Nov 22, 2014, 7:12 PM EST
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho apologized to supporters for criticizing the stadium atmosphere, while praising his team’s play in a 2-0 blanking of West Brom.
Nov 22, 2014, 6:45 PM EST
Rooney: “We weathered the storm” in 2-1 victory over Arsenal.
Nov 22, 2014, 5:15 PM EST
His squad controlling possession and gathering a fair amount of chances on goal, Arsene Wenger believes his side deserved a better result against Manchester United.
Nov 22, 2014, 5:03 PM EST
One game is a rematch of the 3-3 draw that left Luis Suarez in tears, but both Palace and Liverpool have much bigger things to worry about.
Nov 22, 2014, 5:00 PM EST
All the action from the PL’s seven games on Saturday.
Nov 22, 2014, 4:45 PM EST
Elsewhere, USMNT defenders Timmy Chandler (right) and John Anthony Brooks picked up wins in 90 minutes each for their clubs.
Nov 22, 2014, 4:25 PM EST
Despite an wonderful 1-0 result over QPR to keep their winning run alive, Alan Pardew feels the pain of Ryan Taylor’s sudden injury.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:55 PM EST
Barcelona’s diminutive legend is really good at soccer.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:38 PM EST
This season, he has all his players and no excuses. So The Special One is a little ticked off that his Blues aren’t pouring forth goals to match their dominant play.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:35 PM EST
Irvine: “We actually went a goal down to a goal which I thought was offside and that makes life very difficult here.”
Nov 22, 2014, 3:32 PM EST
Red Devils surge to victory away at Arsenal, as LVG’s masterplan is taking shape.
Nov 22, 2014, 2:51 PM EST
And there’s still time Saturday to make the record his own, as the game is just at halftime.
Nov 22, 2014, 2:34 PM EST
What did we learn from United’s big win at the Emirates? Plenty. But here’s three things.
Nov 22, 2014, 2:28 PM EST
A testy affair that could’ve gotten Jack Wilshere a red card instead got him injured, and Arsenal had no finish at the Emirates.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:00 PM EST
Klopp has been at Dortmund since 2008 when he arrived from Mainz, and would likely have his choice of jobs should Dortmund let him walk.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:14 PM EST
Foxes and Black Cats cancel each other out at the King Power.
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