This week US Soccer officially announced that its first friendly of 2011 will be against Chile in January and the rumors that they will also be facing Argentina in March were strengthened by FIFA listing that fixture on their official site. Normally I would be ecstatic over this news, but this week was also the draw for Copa America and the combination of the two really drove home the point of what we’ll be missing out on this summer.
In order to get better, you need to be playing against opposition that really challenges you and pushes you. In CONCACAF, the US is at a disadvantage. For our qualifiers, we either destroy small countries that never really had a shot at qualifying, or we slog through horrible, chippy matches against teams fighting for the 3rd and 4th spots. These games are difficult, but not for the reasons that help the team grow and improve. Our only real match that pushes us is against Mexico (and thanks to politics within CONMEBOL, 2014 will be the last time we see them in qualifiers). Compare that to CONMEBOL qualifying where teams are constantly going up against some of the best teams in the world. Each and every match is difficult (just ask Argentina about their last trip to Bolivia…wasn’t pretty). This is why I love CONMEBOL qualifiers and why I love Copa America. Copa America is all the tension and excitement of the World Cup, but you get to fast forward through the elimination of all the minnow teams like North Korea, New Zealand and Honduras. Sure, it’s fun to root for the underdogs and hope they can pull off an upset, but honestly, I just want to watch the best teams play the best football. Copa America gives you that.
The US is frequently invited to Copa America and frequently declines due to scheduling conflicts. For reasons unbeknownst to me, they decided to accept the invite in 2007. This was all well and good, but the CONCACAF Gold Cup was scheduled for the same summer and it is complete madness to send players to two tournaments in the summer, especially since MLS doesn’t have a summer break. Bob Bradley decided to prioritize the Gold Cup over Copa America and send a “B squad” to Copa America. That squad, clearly outclassed by the other full strength selections, had a pretty dismal showing and went 3 and out. Based on that performance, the folks in CONMEBOL decided not to invite us back and instead opt for 2 guest countries that will take it seriously. For the record, Mexico was also invited and competed in the Gold Cup. They had no problems bringing a full squad which placed 3rd. They were invited back.
So why does it matter that we’re not going? First, I’m selfish. I love watching Copa America and I’d love watching it more if the US had a stake in it. More importantly though, it looks like the tournament had a good effect on the players that went.
- 40% of players who were playing domestically at the time of the tournament moved abroad to better quality leagues
- More than a quarter of the players were on the final 23 man roster for the 2010 World Cup, 40% were on the 30 man roster or would have made the roster had they not been injured
- 8 players 25 or under at the time of the tournament went on to be capped 15 times or more since the tournament. That equates to a little less than half of all international matches played during that time.
Now, correlation does not equal causation, but those are pretty impressive stats for a bunch of second stringers. Missing out on Copa America means less experience in major tournaments for our players before the 2014 World Cup. Since a lot of the core players from this year’s squad will be retired by 2014, that sort of experience would certainly be valuable.