May 1, 2014, 4:24 PM EDT
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.
Jul 5, 2015, 8:34 AM EDT
Sepp’s not going down without a fight, now bringing major political leaders into the mix.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:44 AM EDT
On the Fourth of July, there were fireworks all across Major League Soccer.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:40 AM EDT
Both countries hope that this final will help bring further attention to the women’s game.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:51 AM EDT
Olympic gold medals are great, but this group wants a World Cup title.
Jul 4, 2015, 11:23 PM EDT
On a day where Laura Bassett showed great resolve, England won over many neutrals.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:30 PM EDT
The U.S. hasn’t given up a goal in 513 minutes at this World Cup, heading into the final against Japan.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Kei Kamara -> Ethan Finlay (x2) was all Crew SC needed to jump three places in the Eastern Conference.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:20 PM EDT
Eduaro Vargas and Paolo Guerrero beat all the big names to the 2015 Copa America top scorer’s award.
Jul 4, 2015, 8:00 PM EDT
The solidarity between Japan teammates — and between the two teams contesting the final — is remarkable.
Jul 4, 2015, 7:04 PM EDT
It took 99 years, but Chile are finally champions of South America after defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout.
Jul 4, 2015, 6:28 PM EDT
Steven Gerrard is winning points with LA Galaxy supporters before ever stepping on the field for his new club.
Jul 4, 2015, 6:07 PM EDT
Regulars in the latter stages of the Champions League, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid continue their summer spending sprees.
Jul 4, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
We go once more at the 2015 Copa America. This time it’s Argentina vs. Chile for all the marbles.
Jul 4, 2015, 3:09 PM EDT
Carli Lloyd has taken rightfully taken over the spotlight, but Morgan Brian’s supporting role is no less important.
Jul 4, 2015, 1:18 PM EDT
Croatia’s most successful club has seen police throw its president and manager in prison.
Jul 4, 2015, 12:07 PM EDT
Popularity of women’s soccer has improved greatly the past few years, but there’s still much work to be done, and the US international isn’t happy with FIFAs parading of accomplishments.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:50 AM EDT
With the Dutchman set to turn 32 before the start of the league season, Manchester United may look to cash in on his star power after a down year.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:22 AM EDT
The German international didn’t get a first-team guarantee from Arsene Wenger, so he moved on.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:47 AM EDT
Stoke had an offer accepted by Inter, but two more clubs are reportedly in the mix for the Swiss international.
- Sepp Blatter claims French and German presidents influenced World Cup voters 0
- United States, Japan meet in Women’s World Cup final with high hopes back home 1
- Krieger credits Ellis, communication for United States’ defensive success 2
- Chile 0-0 (4-1 PKs) Argentina: Chile’s first Copa America title in 99-year history (video) 2
- Lloyd, Brian prove crucial to United States’ turnaround at Women’s World Cup 2
- Report: Robin van Persie agrees to personal terms with Fenerbahce 4