Special 2016 Copa América hosted by U.S. would be a spectacle
CONMEBOL announced a Copa América that would include the U.S. and Mexico
U.S. Soccer has not committed to it yet, but there's too much to gain not to do it
Chris Wondolowski is one goal away from MLS' single-season record set in 1996
If everything works out, it'll be the biggest men's soccer tournament on U.S. soil since the 1994 World Cup. That's why fans in the U.S. were so excited on Wednesday when CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, announced that a special 2016 Copa América would take place in the U.S. and include all 10 South American members and six from CONCACAF, including the U.S. and Mexico. (The other four CONCACAF teams would be determined by performance in the 2015 Gold Cup.)
If everything works out, the tournament to commemorate CONMEBOL's 100th anniversary would be fantastic, selling out 80,000-seat stadiums, drawing nine-figure global TV audiences and bringing together a constellation of stars that would potentially include Argentina's Lionel Messi, Brazil's Neymar, Colombia's Radamel Falcao, Mexico's Javier Hernández, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani, Chile's Alexis Sánchez and a host U.S. team that could make a deep run itself. It would also make for a glorious summer of soccer, with Euro 2016 taking place in June and the special Copa América in July being every bit a worthy equal (and even bigger on these shores).
The idea of staging a combined North and South American Copa América isn't exactly a new one (I wrote about it in 2010 -- in large part because it makes so much sense). CONMEBOL needed the six extra teams for the 16 that would make for an ideal tournament format, to say nothing of the extra TV money that would come with the involvement of the full U.S. and Mexican national teams. And CONCACAF needed the prestige and quality competition that would come with taking part in the Copa América.
If hosting the tournament in the U.S. could help grow soccer in this emerging and potentially lucrative market, then so much the better for everyone. From a U.S. perspective, not being guaranteed the chance to participate in a truly big tournament between World Cups (as UEFA has with the Euro) has always been a problem. The Gold Cup doesn't have much global gravitas, and entry in the Confederations Cup only happens by winning the previous Gold Cup.
But then there's that qualifier on a 2016 Copa América: If everything works out.
The fact of the matter is that CONMEBOL jumped the gun on the announcement Wednesday. Discussions have taken place between CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer, but while U.S. Soccer is interested in hosting the tournament, there remain some issues that haven't been settled:
Will FIFA approve the event, put it on the official global calendar and require that clubs release their players for all the national teams involved? No such public announcements have come from FIFA yet. FIFA has not instituted a club-release requirement for "guest teams" like Mexico, the U.S. and Japan in previous Copa América tournaments, nor has FIFA sanctioned a big senior tournament outside the World Cup/Confederations Cup involving the full participation of more than one confederation before. FIFA has generally frowned upon anything that could be seen as a rival to the World Cup, hence the age limit on the men's Olympic tournament.
Will countries send their best squads to a 2016 Copa América? There's little point in staging this tournament if all nations don't bring their top teams. At the very least, FIFA would have to require clubs to release their players for all the national teams involved, but there are other factors, too. The traditional Copa América (involving CONMEBOL, Mexico and Japan) will take place in 2015 in Chile, as will the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup in this region.
It's possible that one or two countries would thus be involved in June/July tournaments in 2013 (Confederations Cup/Gold Cup), 2014 (World Cup), 2015 (Copa América/Gold Cup), 2016 (special Copa América), 2017 (Confederations Cup/Gold Cup), 2018 (World Cup) and 2019 (Copa América/Gold Cup). That's a lot of tournaments for players who have little time off as it is. CONMEBOL switched from a biennial to a quadrennial Copa América in 2007 because countries like Brazil and Argentina had stopped regularly sending their top teams when the tournament took place every two years. Keep in mind, too, that Brazil is hosting the Olympic soccer tournament starting around Aug. 2, 2016. Even though only three players over the age of 23 per team are allowed, you can be certain that Brazil (which has never won gold in Olympic soccer) will prioritize winning an Olympic gold medal over winning a one-off combined Copa América. The same might be said for Argentina, Uruguay and others if they qualify for the Olympics.
While U.S. Soccer has expressed interest in staging the 2016 tournament, it hasn't signed off on it yet -- a somewhat important fact if you're being publicized as the host. CONMEBOL's announcement on Wednesday was a little like me inviting everyone to a dinner party at my friend's place without the friend being totally on board yet.
How will the economic deals work? Nothing has been signed yet between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF on how revenues from the tournament would be split. Also, while TV interest figures to be big, how would it work out? In the U.S., at least, ESPN has already bought the rights for Euro 2016, which would suggest that another company (FOX? NBC? BeIN Sport?) might be expected to step up for a 2016 Copa América.
All that said, I expect the 2016 Copa América in the U.S. will get done eventually. There's too much upside for soccer in this part of the world for it not to happen.
With all 10 MLS playoff teams now decided, the big story in this week's regular-season finales (aside from playoff seeding) is Chris Wondolowski's pursuit of the league's all-time single-season scoring record. The San Jose forward has 26 goals, one shy of Roy Lassiter's record of 27 set in 1996, and Wondolowski will be going for it against a Portland defense that has allowed the third-most goals in the league when they meet Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
"To be honest, it would mean a lot just to be a part of that history, it really would," Wondolowski told me this week. "I was fortunate to meet Roy Lassiter last week, and he was such a nice, humble person, a true legend himself. Just to be mentioned with him right now, I take a lot of pride in it."
|Most Goals Over Three Straight MLS Seasons|
|* Stern John scored 44 goals in his two seasons with Columbus.|
Already Wondolowski has set a record, scoring 60 goals over the last three MLS seasons, the most in league history over a three-year period (see table). But after scoring 18 in 2010 and 16 last year, he took it to a new level in 2012 as San Jose has won the Supporters' Shield with the best regular-season record in the league.
"The team around me is so strong, and we create so many opportunities where it makes my job a lot easier," said Wondolowski, explaining the difference this year. "I just have to find a little bit of space and they've been putting it on platters for me. We have a great midfield and attacking outside backs who get crosses in, and when you have Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart it makes it a lot easier."
One of the keys to Wondolowski's success has been his remarkable movement off the ball. He's constantly in motion and has an uncanny ability to find space even when he's the target of opponents' defensive game plans. "I just try to read the game and anticipate where the ball is going to go and also just where the space is opened up," he says. "Sometimes you go to a certain space and the ball will get to you, and it's nice when it does."
One question is whether Wondolowski will parlay his three straight sterling seasons into a bigger MLS contract. He has renegotiated his deal each of the past two offseasons and is making $300,000 this year, far below what he deserves. But MLS is set up to keep salaries as low as possible, with the league's teams not competing with each other in the free agent market. As a result, to really put pressure on the league, you have to get a big offer from a foreign club. Wondolowski, for his part, doesn't have an agent for his MLS deals, a situation that seems unheard of for a guy who will be the sure league MVP this season. (He says he does have an agreement with a representative who would handle any deals with foreign clubs.)
Wondolowski would like to renegotiate his deal in the offseason and become a Designated Player, but he says he has yet to come up with any figures on his own for what he would be seeking.
"We'll definitely discuss it in the offseason, but I want to wait until the season is over," he told me. "A lot has to do with where we end up. If we get knocked out in the first round or win the championship, there would be a difference there. I also want to do a lot of research and see where other DPs are and things like that, just make sure I have all my facts together when we talk. [San Jose GM] John Doyle and our owners and Frank [Yallop, the coach] are great guys, and we're all pretty open with each other. We'll discuss it and see what everyone's thinking in the middle of December."
How much of a raise Wondolowski might get remains to be seen. D.C. United's Dwayne De Rosario is earning $663,000 this season after his MVP campaign last year, while L.A.'s Landon Donovan is getting $2.4 million. Wondolowski should have a case to make more than De Rosario, considering he's younger (29 to De Rosario's 34), but San Jose doesn't have a history of spending big. This year's Earthquakes own the league's top record despite having MLS' second-lowest payroll and not a single DP.
That should change next year.