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Opinion: AFC and CAF tournaments better for US Soccer than CONMEBOL

Drew Pells
CONTRIBUTOR
Editor's Pick
262   //    28 Feb 2019, 22:59 IST

The United States Men National Team got destroyed by Messi's Argentina in the 2016 Copa America Centenario
The United States Men National Team got destroyed by Messi's Argentina in the 2016 Copa America Centenario

Argentina 4-0 USA. Chile 7-0 Mexico. USA 2-1 Ecuador. And Brazil 2-0 Mexico. Those are the results of knockout games between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF national teams over the past three years at major international tournaments and the South Americans took all but one with ease.

This week, the New York Times reported US Soccer has invited the ten CONMEBOL nations to join them and five other CONCACAF teams for an international tournament in the summer of 2020, reminiscent of the wildly popular and successful Copa America Centenario of 2016.

The Centenario and the 2018 World Cup in Russia showed South American teams are head and shoulders above the top CONCACAF nations. So, other than ungodly amounts of revenue, why have this tournament? How does it benefit the USMNT and US Soccer as a whole? What can CONCACAF nations learn from playing against the South Americans again?

If US Soccer is interested in helping the USMNT and not just adding to the bank account, they should instead invite 10, or more, nations from Africa and/or Asia. A tournament featuring CAF (Africa), AFC (Asia), and CONCACAF national teams would benefit US Soccer much more by providing meaningful competitive games for the US, and Mexico for that matter, showing how the nations stack up in world football, as well as being great entertainment for fans.

Oh yeah, it’ll make plenty of money also.

The US Too Far Behind South America

Competitive results between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL over the past three years exposed just how far the US and Mexico are behind the South Americans and another tournament between the confederations wouldn’t tell US coach Gregg Berhalter anything he doesn’t already know.

At the Centenario, the US and Mexico were the only two North American teams to make it to the knockouts where Mexico got embarrassingly slaughtered 7-0 by Chile in the quarterfinals. The Americans did win their last eight matchups with then 13th ranked Ecuador, who have since fallen far in the rankings, only to run into a brick wall called Argentina. They had no shot against Lionel Messi and Co. losing 4-0.

At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Brazil blanked Costa Rica 2-0 in the group stage and then did the same to Mexico in the last 16. And remember, this was the Mexico team that had just beat reigning World Cup champions Germany in the opening group game with the “genius” Juan Carlos Osorio as manager.

Irrespective of the US’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018, they are still one of the top three if not top two teams in North America and don’t get much competition within the region and therefore few chances to play quality opponents and really test themselves to improve. Friendlies help, but they aren’t the same with experimental XIs and sox subs tearing up any team cohesion during the game.

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In the current FIFA rankings, the first 16 teams are European and South American while Mexico is 17th followed by four more from UEFA and CONMEBOL. But, between 22 and 28 are Iran and Japan, two AFC nations, and Senegal and Tunisia, two CAF nations, plus the US. Those ranked from 37 to 46 include two more AFC nations, South Korea and Australia, and two CAF nations, Morocco and Nigeria, plus Costa Rica.

On the field, CONMEBOL swept the floor with CONCACAF teams at recent tournaments and on paper, it’s clear CONCACAF doesn’t belong in the same category as the top South American nations either, five of which occupy spots in the top 15 of FIFA’s rankings. At the same time though, the North Americans do match up well with the African and Asian teams on paper and in the field.CONMEBOL had five teams, 50 percent of their member nations, at Russia 2018 and four of them advanced to the last 16. Uruguay and Brazil made it to the last eight for good measure. AFC also sent five, but they have 47 members in the confederation (11 percent qualified), and only Japan continued past the group stage. CAF qualified five nations from 54 member nations (9 percent) and none advanced to the knockouts.

Senegal actually finished tied for second in their group with Japan, but didn’t advance because of the “fair play” tiebreaker based on yellow and red card accumulation.

They may have sent the same number of teams, but the South Americans outperformed the other confederations by a long shot exhibiting the strength and depth of CONMEBOL versus the rest.

What about CONCACAF at Russia 2018? three nations qualified, or 9 percent of the confederation, the same as CAF. And how many went to the knockouts? one, Mexico, which don’t forget lost to CONMEBOL member Brazil in the round of 16. CONCACAF is far below the South Americans in terms of quality and success and it was on full display at both the Centenario and World Cup.

CONCACAF needs to measure up against CAF and AFC

Now at the 2020 tournament, would the CONCACAF nations fair any better? No evidence exists to say yes and beyond that, what’s the point of getting destroyed again? What does that tell you about the team? Nothing. In fact, it could make things worse.

Yes, “iron sharpens iron” but iron against diamond gets pulverized and crumbles.

Also, could it get a manager fired for working with a team for a year or more and then getting exposed easily by superior competition? Mexico fans screamed ferociously for Osorio’s head after the 7-0 humiliation to Chile yet somehow he stayed in the job.

Dunga, Brazil manager at the time, meanwhile paid for poor performance and a group stage exit with his job.

A 2020 tournament proposed by US Soccer featuring CONCACAF and CONMEBOL doesn’t really benefit the US as the South Americans are too far ahead. But a tournament playing against similarly ranked and similarly performing CAF and AFC gives the US the chance to play competitive games outside the region, improve as a whole against competition that won’t wipe them out, and see how they measure up in world football.

Is it really necessary though to find out how CONCACAF fairs against AFC and CAF? Yes. The debate of “does CONMEBOL get too many World Cup berths” comes up every qualifying cycle and results prove it’s not too many. Also, the debate of whether CAF, AFC, and CONCACAF get the right amount resurfaces every four years and it’s hard to determine since they don’t play each other very often.

Well, how about a 16 or 24 team tournament between them to see if the World Cup berths are justified? Granted, a tournament between the confederations won’t end the debate, but it would provide a great litmus test and huge data point for reference.

AFC and CAF Availability

Footballing wise, this tournament works. And when it comes to scheduling, that won’t be a huge problem. CONCACAF teams are of course free in June and July 2020 as the Gold Cup takes place the summers before and after the proposed tournament.

CAF nations also have some free time as they play the Africa Cup of Nations this summer and again in 2021. Prior to this year, they staged the tournament in January but moved it to the summer starting 2019 and will most likely keep it in June and July for 2021. Regardless, they’re free 2020 and clubs had to reluctantly release players for tournaments during the season in January. Now they don’t need to worry about that.

AFC contests the AFC Asian Cup every four years in January with the most recent edition earlier this year, which means they also will not have a regional tournament in 2020. Granted, most domestic leagues in Asia run March to November or thereabouts which could cause some consternation from clubs, but there’s no conflict of international competitions.

Besides, many South American domestic leagues run roughly March to November and they showed up to Copa America in 2016, so why couldn’t the AFC nations and players also go?

In 2016, the Copa America Centenario was on the FIFA Calendar meaning clubs were obligated to release players called in by their national teams regardless of domestic club competitions during that time.

This proposed tournament of CAF, AFC, and CONCACAF can also viably get the tournament on the official FIFA Calendar meaning national teams can call in their best squads for the month and clubs can’t say no.

Scheduling won’t be a huge issue to invite CAF and AFC nations.

Financial strength of AFC, CAF, CONCACAF tournaments

Now, of course, US Soccer will say any tournament is about giving the teams the opportunity to improve and play the best competition possible. I believe that to be true, however, I’m not that naive. Money is the biggest reason to stage this tournament, especially with all the revenue US Soccer missed out on when the USMNT did not go to Russia 2018.

Would a tournament bringing Messi, if he hasn’t retired by then, and Argentina, along with Neymar and Brazil, James Rodriguez with Colombia, and Luis Suarez with Uruguay draw sellout crowds across the nation? No doubt. Would it also attract millions of eyeballs on TV and therefore revenue? Of course.

At the same time though, I don’t think you can sell short just how well a tournament with African and Asian teams would do. A tournament featuring the best from those confederations would also sell out stadiums and get a huge TV audience. Maybe not as high of TV ratings as with the South Americans, but still significant.

As of a 2017 Pew Research study, more than two million African born immigrants live in the US with three of the four biggest groups being from Nigeria, Egypt, and Ghana, three big and talented CAF nations likely to receive an invite.

The study also states the majority of the African born immigrants live in the South and Northeast, plus California. Where has US Soccer hosted tournament games, qualifiers, and friendlies in recent years? Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, Levi’s Stadium in San Jose, CA, and Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN just to name a few. And don’t forget MLS’s wild success with Atlanta United at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the capital of the South.

Much like how many Mexican and South American immigrants who root for their nation of birth and their children who also root for their roots filled stadiums during the Centenario, surely Nigerians, Egyptians, Ghanaians, and others will do the same in 2020.

With regards AFC nations, the Pew Research Center also released data in 2017 showing over 20 million East and South East Asian born immigrants live in the US. Granted, the four largest groups come from China, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, not exactly soccer powerhouses nor teams that might get an invitation to the tournament, still though more than a million immigrants trace their roots to each of Korea and Japan, two likely participating nations.

Middle Eastern and North African immigrants account for over a million immigrants living in the US as of 2016 according to Migrationpolicy.org, which included large numbers from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco, three of which had their national teams at the World Cup in Russia. 

All in all, roughly 3-5 million immigrants live in the US who are from the CAF and AFC nations that would most likely receive an invite to this tournament in the US. Therefore, the next question should be “how does that compare to South Americans living in the US?” because they showed up in droves for the Centenario.

Migrationpolicy.org stated in 2017 there are about 3.2 million South American born immigrants in the US. Basically, the same number as those from the likely Asian and African participants.

With approximately the same number of immigrants from the respective nations, there’s no reason why AFC and CAF nations wouldn’t draw huge crowds to a summer tournament in the US as well.

One of the big reasons South American fans went the Centenario was it was their only opportunity to see their national team in person. Yes, they could travel to a World Cup or to a Copa America on the southern continent, but that’s much different and harder than driving 30 minutes from home to the stadium to see the team.

The same goes for the CAF and AFC national team fans. This tournament would be their one chance to see their national team compete live. Now, is footballing fervor in Morocco the same as in Colombia? Conventional wisdom would argue no.

So the argument is South American fans turned out in huge numbers because of their passion for the game and it is embedded in the culture, where that may not be the case for CAF and AFC nations. Duly noted but that’s hard to prove as the reason the tournament won’t sell out.

In fact, the 1994 World Cup in the USA still holds the record for highest total attendance and highest average attendance per game for any World Cup. That was 25 years ago and without a doubt, soccer fervour and interest are exponentially higher in the US now. The 2020 tournament would sellout.

Also, that argument means among the 3-5 million immigrants from CAF and AFC nations living in the US, less than 25,000 or 30,000 would go to each game and fill the stadium? Especially if it’s in the same city in which they live or at least the same part of the US? The one and only chance they get to see their national team live and they won’t take the opportunity? I don’t buy it.

There are plenty of fans that will buy tickets across the country if US Soccer invites the top AFC and CAF nations just like they sold out in 2016 and 1994.

The most glaringly obvious reason to stage a tournament in conjunction with CONMEBOL instead of CAF and AFC is the TV ratings. Hardcore fans of national teams will tune in to see Morocco vs Costa Rica and root for their country, but will the casual fan? Arguably no.

Will the casual fan tune in to Brazil vs Argentina though? Yes. Unequivocally yes. A tournament with South American powerhouses without question will draw higher TV ratings and therefore more ad revenue so it beats the Africans and Asians on that front.

However, there is a silver lining for Jamaica vs Tunisia for example instead of Mexico vs Colombia. Fans know that the South Americans will blow CONCACAF out of the water, just like when Haiti gave up 12 goals in three matches in 2016.

For a casual fan, where’s the fun in watching Haiti get blasted by Brazil? CONCACAF playing CAF and AFC teams though? Those are pretty even matchups and therefore more intriguing because you don’t know the result beforehand.

MLS puts a heavy emphasis on parity, presumably because American fans enjoy the “anyone can win” potential. However, there’s no parity at a combined Copa America. It’s clear Brazil, Argentina, et al will win.

But the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama against Egypt, Senegal, Japan, and Iran? No clear cut winner. The ultimate parity desired by American fans.

What will US Soccer Do?

The sexy choice for who US Soccer should invite for a summer 2020 tournament is, of course, the South Americans. I’m all about making money and never look down on someone for paper chasing but what is the purpose of this tournament? Is it for US Soccer to make boatloads of money? Or is it to test where the USMNT finds itself among the ranks of world football as they go into qualifying for Qatar 2022?

If it’s for money, the easy choice is to partner with CONMEBOL although a tournament with AFC and CAF wouldn’t be far behind in revenue.

But, if it’s to measure the US in the Berhalter era as they approach Qatar 2022 qualifying, then they need to invite the top AFC and CAF teams.

Playing Brazil and Argentina is reaching too far for the USMNT and quite redundant. Playing Japan, Iran, Nigeria, and Ghana though is the right barometer to measure the team and find their place in world football.

As a soccer fan, a Copa America Centenario redux is fun. As a USMNT supporter, CAF and AFC opponents benefit the team more for short and long term progress.

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