USMNT: The case for CONMEBOL and the end to low expectations


Tempers flared as the USA lost to Mexico

by Richard Fleming

Cue much soul-searching – or as much as the sports media allows itself over soccer-related stories in this part of the world – now that the USA has lost two games in swift succession.

Of course Jurgen Klinsmann is in the firing line. He was already on a short leash after the Gold Cup semifinal humiliation at the hands of Jamaica. That loss was compounded a few days later when they slipped up in the third place playoff to Panama.
It could therefore be suggested that Klinsmann’s had his fair share of set-backs in recent times, though I get the sense that the USA – certainly in international soccer terms – seems to gauge success on how well it fares in the Gold Cup and against Mexico.

Many questions have been posed in the aftermath of the USA’s dramatic 3-2 defeat by Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, followed by a 1-0 reversal to Costa Rica.

One question which could be worth posing is ‘can the USA continue to grow as a soccer nation while remaining a member of CONCACAF?’.

The USA has won the CONCACAF Gold Cup five times and Mexico has triumphed on seven occasions. Victory for El Tri back in the summer was at the 13th staging of the tournament. Canada, with success in 2000, is the only nation to prevent it being a two-horse race, but barely.

Where is the genuine competition in the region? And how, therefore, will the USA ever genuinely improve as a nation? Also, how can others in North and Central America and the Caribbean be expected to grow when the USA dominates and controls at almost every turn? Thirteen Gold Cups held, in which the USA has either been host (10 times) or co-host (3 times) on every single occasion.

It’s certainly no level playing field, but grants the US (and Mexico) regular regional success, and safe passage to the big events – and the further financial rewards that come with that. Giants among minnows, big fish in CONCACAF, yet still small beer in the grand scheme of things.


Mexico celebrate a Peralta goal

Mexico celebrate a Peralta goal

So how to change that?

Well, here’s a curve-ball to consider. How about the USA applying to join CONMEBOL? Sounds daft, I know, and it would mean MLS clubs having to play in the Copa Libertadores, etc, but such a move is not without precedent. Australia found they were going nowhere within the Oceania Football Confederation. Their only competition, occasionally, were New Zealand. So they upped sticks and moved to the Asian Football Confederation.

Now, I know that their decision was also based upon giving themselves a greater chance of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, as the AFC had more spaces available, but it was also about creating stronger competition and being able to grow significantly as a soccer nation, while not fearing failure.

“We would never qualify for the World Cup,” one MLS player told me. “We’d never stand a chance.”

Being placed in with the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia may not seem like the brightest idea, which brings us back to the limited real competition faced by the USA within CONCACAF.

Another member nation may occasionally hit a purple patch and produce something special, but more often than not, the garlands will be hung around the neck of one of two nations – and that can’t be healthy. So high are expectations, based upon historical success, that anything less than a place in the Gold Cup final is seen as a huge failure, and losing out to Mexico is a national disaster. Reaching the World Cup is assumed, but beyond that expectations are then more muted.
Of course, Australia’s reasons for moving to another confederation were two-fold – greater competition and a greater chance of reaching the World Cup but, as the head of the Football Federation of Australia, Frank Lowy, said a year ago:

“The prospects for the future are unbelievable. Just imagine if we were still in the Oceania competition – not that we want to play down the value of Oceania, but there are many small islands and the Socceroos’ competition would have been nothing compared to where we are now. To compete in Asia is what makes the Socceroos that much better.”

If moving to CONMEBOL is too drastic a consideration, then more needs to be done to spread the wealth, spread the opportunity and spread the potential for success throughout the region. There are a number of sticking points, among them financial, but mainly the fear of the USA having to step back in order to push forward. The idea of missing out on World Cup qualification is unthinkable.

But maybe some thought could be given to it in the coming months. After all, are there not plans to stage the Copa América outside of South America next year for the first time ever, as part of the centenary celebrations of CONMEBOL? And is it not being hosted by the United States? And will this not allow US soccer fans to see some of the world’s best players? And will it not give them a chance to see the depth of quality within CONMEBOL, and compare it to their own confederation? And could they not then ask what their nation needs to do to be among the best in the world, and not just settle for being the best in CONCACAF?

So, while others pose perfectly pertinent questions in the aftermath of the CONCACAF Cup defeat, I’d like to think there are other questions that need to be asked also, questions that rip this nation from a comfort zone which is in danger of holding back its development.


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1 Comment

  1. I get it, but no. That’s one of the worst ideas going. Australia had the distinct disadvantage of having to play in at the last moment. That’s why they moved; they had the chance to win in advance of a final winner-take-all playoff. They leave that to New Zealand every time now.

    In other words, the one thing they did was ensure a better chance at getting in the World Cup. The US is in a position now that EVERY other country on the globe would be thrilled to have. It is a superpower, with two main nations fighting for 3 1/2 spots. Playing in Conmebol is just suggesting that we should lower our opportunity to get in for a more rigorous qualification process. That’s absurd. We have the best situation possible. If we need to “up” our competition level, maybe that should be done by mastering Mexico… until then, and even then, why make it harder?

    Be careful what you wish for…