How will 'nations league' impact CONCACAF, U.S. and Mexico?
CONCACAF is finalizing plans for a new competition among its national teams, including the United States and Mexico, to replace international friendlies. The so-called "nations league" idea is similar to the one adopted by UEFA, which will introduce its own competition in 2018. Matches would occur during FIFA windows normally set aside for friendlies.
We asked two of our writers for their views on the proposal, both from the point of view of the confederation and the national team each covers.
How would this benefit CONCACAF?
Doug McIntyre: As much as the U.S. and Mexico don't care, Victor Montagliani is probably right when he says that this new competition will be good for the majority of CONCACAF's 41 member nations. The opportunity to play regular games against better teams is always going to benefit weaker squads by giving them valuable experience and exposure, and eventually it will narrow the gap between the region's haves and have-nots.
But for me, the "nations league" format only makes sense if two other landmark changes follow. First, with all teams now playing meaningful matches during every FIFA window, there is no need to hold the Gold Cup every two years. Make it a quadrennial event like the European Championship. Second, CONCACAF must form a closer alliance with CONMEBOL to make sure that its best teams don't stagnate. At the least, that would mean making a combined championship of the Americans -- a rebranded version of last summer's wildly successful Copa America Centenario, which is already in the works for 2020 -- a permanent staple on the international calendar. Otherwise, CONCACAF's top squads, 75 percent of which advanced to the knockout stage at the last World Cup, will be woefully unprepared to duplicate that success at future tournaments.
Tom Marshall: We should probably err on the side of caution until Montagliani's proposal is fully explained, but it is easy to see why a majority of CONCACAF's 41 federations would be in favor. In a region dominated by Mexico and the United States, most nations get nowhere near making it to the World Cup due to the qualifying system. Most don't even appear regularly at the Gold Cup. The "nations league" would hand those countries a structured competition and a path to growth on the international scene. It would placate dissatisfied members from the Caribbean and Central America.
And how would the big countries feel?
McIntyre on the U.S.: From a U.S. national team perspective, CONCACAF's plan to effectively use the fixture dates that the American federation often filled with high-profile friendlies for this new competition is a kick in the teeth.
It's not just that the U.S. will no longer be able to book exhibitions against global titans like the Netherlands or World Cup holders Germany -- countries the Americans beat on their own turf in 2015. UEFA's move to their own intra-confederation competition means that most European foes won't be available in the future anyway. But unless CONCACAF's move is accompanied by the other changes outlined above, preventing the U.S. from facing high-end South American opponents like Argentina, Brazil or Chile or even top African squads like Ghana (who Bruce Arena's team will meet in July on a semi-regular basis, has the potential to make the American program regress.
After all, the U.S. has topped the CONCACAF standings in each of the last three World Cup cycles. They've made the final in five of the last six Gold Cups. Playing more games against minnows such as Martinique or Nicaragua -- teams it will face in the group stage of July's Gold Cup -- does nothing to improve the U.S. team. The Americans have never been shy about their ambition to one day compete for a World Cup crown. Getting there won't be easy no matter what. But it's likely to require more opportunities for U.S. players to test themselves against the world's best, not fewer.
Marshall on Mexico: For Mexico, this is a kick to the stomach. It would change the way the federation operates and threaten its authority. El Tri's coffers are significantly boosted by the friendlies it plays in front of packed houses in the United States each year. Those games help pay not only for the men's national team, but the extensive and successful youth team programs and, increasingly, development on the women's side of the game.
Aside from that, head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has stressed over and over that Mexico will only really compete at an elite level once the competition increases. Either from better competition at the international level or through players advancing into better leagues on the club side. That is unlikely to happen by repeatedly playing CONCACAF opposition who, with full respect, don't have the resources and even size to match Mexico. And would Mexico's European-based stars be keen on continually making the trip back to play low quality opposition in far-flung corners of CONCACAF? It would be counter-productive in many ways. Montagliani's argument is that El Tri don't play many real quality friendlies anyway, although this would take away the Mexican federation's freedom to maneuver and choose its own path.
If this idea does go ahead, the often-repeated idea of Mexico moving to CONMEBOL would inevitably be floated, whether it is realistic or not.