Copa America is coming to the United States in 2016, a soccer bonanza unseen in these parts since the 1994 World Cup.
Does it, however, dent the integrity of the competition? More on the pluses and minuses later. First, the specifics:
Copa America was hatched in 1916 — 14 years before the inaugural World Cup and 44 prior to the European Championship. In essence, it is the South American championship, which, in fact, was the tournament’s title until the 1970s. After decades of disorganization and irregular scheduling, Copa America entered an era of relative stability.
And to celebrate the 100th anniversary, the South American governing body, known as CONMEBOL, has joined forces with its northern counterparts, CONCACAF, to stage a special version of the tournament in the United States two summers from now. (The 2015 and ’19 Copas are already scheduled in traditional locations.)
Sixteen teams, including all 10 CONMEBOL members, will compete. CONCACAF nations will fill out the field. The U.S. and Mexican squads are automatic entries. Canada and Central American and Caribbean teams will vie for the remaining four slots, based on performance in regional tournaments and the 2015 Gold Cup, CONCACAF’s biennial championship.
U.S. venues interested in hosting matches will submit bids, with large markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Dallas and Miami among the natural favorites. The tournament will run June 3-26.
Copa America has been inviting guests for some 20 years — the United States finished fourth in 1995 in Uruguay, Mexico has advanced to the semifinals five times, Honduras reached the final four in 2001, and even Japan took part once. But it has never welcomed so many at once and never allowed an outsider to host the tournament.
Argentina was the 2011 choice and, for the 33rd edition next year, Chile is in charge. Playing in 2016 means back-to-back years for the first time in the modern era.
Why Copa America in the United States is a good thing:
*With a considerable Latino fan base and growing interest in the sport across other demographics, tickets will sell in large volume, further accelerating soccer’s momentum as a spectator sport in this country. We would have preferred the 2022 World Cup (bravo, Sepp, bravo), but we’ll settle for Copa America.
*South American teams play in the United States regularly but not in official competition. Copa America means greater roster strength and intensity than the annual parade of inconsequential summer friendlies. Seeing Brazil tangle with Uruguay in a meaningful match is a considerable upgrade over a random exhibition.
*CONCACAF teams will face strong competition midway through the next World Cup cycle — a period when they are usually concentrating on one another in the early stages of qualifying. Regardless of the outcomes, the northern sides should benefit from rigorous matches.
*The addition of both the United States and Mexico, as well as possibly Costa Rica and Honduras, increases the depth and quality of the tournament. Although it still falls short of European Championship standards, 16 teams raises the profile. If all goes well, perhaps Copa America would consider a broader field of teams in the future, regardless of location. Brazil (2019) and Ecuador (2023) were awarded the subsequent tournaments.
Why Copa America in the States is problematic:
*The calendar is tight. Euro club seasons end in mid- to late May, just a few weeks before the tournament begins. Fatigue is sure to set in. The 2016 European Championship in France (June 10-July 10) will overlap, diverting domestic and global interest from Copa America. (Then again, with the time difference, a fan could watch Euros all day and Copa all night.)
Several federations, most notably Brazil’s, will have to take into account the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 5-21. An under-23 or overage player primed for the Olympic roster would probably not compete in both tournaments, unless the federation used Copa America as a tune-up for the Olympics — which would water down the Copa field. Also, CONCACAF would have to adjust the World Cup qualifying calendar: In 2012, the semifinal round began June 8.
*Organizers will need FIFA’s blessing. Without it, clubs could prevent players from participating.
*With the Copa America title at stake a year earlier and then again three years later, would some South American federations take this one less seriously? In other words, will repetition dilute the importance?
*The United States offers an array of wonderful stadiums with large capacities and nice amenities. It does not, however, offer the soulful grounds featured in South America. Surface width and artificial turf would factor into the venue selection process.
*Unlike a typical Copa, the 2016 hosts will not come under unbearable pressure to win the championship. Mexico, Brazil and Argentina will face more scrutiny than the U.S. squad. The Americans will want to do well and their supporters will expect good results, but that special element that comes with hosting Copa America will be absent.
From a philosophical standpoint, should the United States host South America’s treasured tournament? Under normal circumstances, no. It’s not ours; it’s theirs. But the 100th anniversary offers a unique opportunity for the Americas to coalesce, to celebrate a sport that both unites and divides us, and to take pride in our part of the world.