The United States and Mexico are, undoubtedly, the giants of North American football. In the ten times the Gold Cup has been contested, only once has another country, Canada in 2000, managed to claim the top prize in CONCACAF. They’re the most populous countries, with the biggest economies, the highest profile domestic leagues, and the most famous national team players. Internationally, they’re the most successful and highest ranked of all CONCACAF nations. The matches played between these two regional powers are highly anticipated and hard-fought contests. CONCACAF gets plenty from having the US (and Mexico) under its aegis.
But what is the US getting from this relationship? Not a whole lot, when you look at it.
The United States has the ambition and resources to reach the upper echelons of the world’s football hierarchy, but it will be difficult while playing against CONCACAF nations. Of the Confederation’s 40 member associations, just ten are in the top 100 of the FIFA world ranking, and only the US and Mexico are in the top 30. Comparatively, all of CONMEBOL’s ten members are inside the top 60, along with a staggering 33 teams from UEFA. Even the AFC has 23 nations in the top 100. The United States simply does not get the regular competition that other nations at the same level do, and while that ensures easier qualification, it hinders the team’s progress in the long run. The logic is simple: If you want to be the best, you have to play the best. And at the moment, two games against Mexico and a couple of tricky away qualifiers every cycle won’t prepare the United States as well as the rigorous qualifying competitions in South America or Europe.
In short, I think the US needs a change of scenery. In my opinion, the USMNT and American soccer would be better served as part of CONMEBOL, the governing body of South American football. The competition is better, the level of exposure is higher, and the quality of soccer played far outstrips the brand normally seen here. And wouldn’t welcoming Brazil and Argentina draw a lot more coverage and fans than Panama and Jamaica do? There is a precedent, as well. Australia switched from Oceania to Asia for similar reasons in 2007.
It would, admittedly, be more difficult to qualify for the World Cup, but the benefits of such a move cannot be underestimated. MLS clubs would take part not in the half ignored CONCACAF Champions League, but in the famed Copa Libertadores. Major League Soccer would acquire new relevance in influential and powerful footballing nations, bringing in better foreign players and pushing American players to improve. And the USMNT would be trying itself in the much more brutal Copa America and CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying competitions.
An interesting, and very positive side effect of this proposal would be the weakening of the influence of the worst cancer on the world’s game, CONCACAF President and FIFA Vice-President Jack Warner. One of the most contemptibly corrupt officials in any International organization, CONCACAF has been polluted, and its quality diluted, by a score of rotten borough type federations set up for the sole purpose of keeping Warner in power (For example, the tiny island of Saint Martin, which has a population of just under 75,000, or slightly less than Edmond, Oklahoma, has two federations, Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten, giving them more votes than the entire US). And he abuses that power by treating CONCACAF, and thus the US, as his own personal cash cow. After receiving over $27 million for Trinidad and Tobago’s participation in the 2006 World Cup, Warner’s Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation claimed revenues of under $3 million and costs of $2.8 million, offering the players less than $1,000 apiece, after Warner himself had negotiated a payment and bonus package totaling over $14 million. During the same World Cup, Warner’s family made over $1 million selling World Cup tickets on the black market, and paid just a quarter of the million dollar fine from FIFA, which has apparently been forgotten.
The US is ready for this move. The American national team and domestic league have both grown by leaps and bounds in the past two decades, and swiftly fading are the times when nations like Trinidad, Panama, and Guatemala provided stern, telling tests of American mettle. The USSF needs to push this country to achieve its potential, and the best place for that to happen is south of the border.
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.