Not long after Italy crashed out of the World Cup qualifying playoffs last month, joining a notable list of teams failing to punch tickets to Russia, U.S. soccer officials hatched the idea of gathering the lonesome losers for an American-hosted series of matches or tournament before the real party next summer.
Praised by some but ridiculed by most, it quickly became international soccer’s version of the NIT, college basketball’s sideshow for schools that fall short of the NCAA tournament.
Three weeks later, it’s looking less and less likely the proposed auxiliary competition will happen. It faced long odds from the start because of logistical hurdles, scheduling challenges and, from a soccer standpoint, a sensible reason for doing it. It was more about exploiting a marketing opportunity than anything else; after all, MLS-owned Soccer United Marketing was the primary force behind it.
Consider: Every World Cup team is looking for opponents in the build-up to Russia. If you’re the United States, Italy or Netherlands, would you rather test your emerging talent against other rebuilding teams in U.S. venues or visit full-strength squads prepping for the sport’s premier event? The latter offers greater benefit.
The idea is not completely dead. If some sponsor came along offering to foot the bill for a round of matches — featuring the aforementioned countries, plus, say, Chile, Ghana, Cameroon, Ireland and the Czech Republic — people in powerful positions would listen. Don’t hold your breath, though.
Meantime, most, if not all, of the failed programs are seeking friendlies during the FIFA window March 19-27, as well as in late May and early June when Russian-bound teams need tuneups for the World Cup.
The U.S. Soccer Federation had an envoy in Moscow last week for the World Cup draw. The main aim was to pursue matches in those spring and early-summer windows. Ideally, the Americans would like to play two friendlies in March (probably in Europe), host two games against World Cup teams from South America in May and have another two matches in Europe in June. (The World Cup begins June 14.)
Without any meaningful competition until the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup — and with the ill-conceived CONCACAF League of Nations replacing friendly dates starting next fall — the Americans are going to have fewer chances to play European and South American sides. Without the World Cup on the agenda, the USSF can’t let this opportunity pass by.