United States, CONCACAF get green light to host 2016 Copa America

An extra edition of the quadrennial Copa America will be held in the United States to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the world’s oldest international soccer tournament in 2016, the regional governing bodies CONCACAF and CONMEBOL announced on Thursday. It will include CONMEBOL’s 10 South American countries and six from CONCACAF’s North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Copa America is the prestigious South American championship and had been scheduled for 2015 and 2019. But to commemorate the 100 years since the first tournament, an edition will be added with the guest countries, including the United States, Mexico and four teams yet to qualify.

First held in 1916, the Copa America predates the World Cup and the European Championships. "It established a blueprint of what we now call international competition," CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb said at a press conference today. "Continuing this legacy, a historic tournament has been agreed between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF to make the competition a true Copa America."

"The 2016 Copa America will be the biggest international sporting event that the United States has hosted since the 2002 Winter Olympics and the biggest football event since the 1994 World Cup," Webb added. "There is no question that some of the world’s best talent will be on display."

Actually, there is some question: it isn’t yet known if FIFA will sanction the tournament on its official calendar. Without such a blessing, professional clubs worldwide would not be obligated to release their players for the tournament, likely leading to a heavily diluted talent pool. Further complicating the equation is that the bonus Copa America will be held June 3-26, overlapping with Euro 2016, which will run from June 10 through July 10.

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Still, this is major news. Rumored to be in the works for some time, the benefits for both parties are obvious: it injects the northern region with captivating teams and better players from South America while CONMEBOL will benefit from an affluent new market to tap into.

"In North America there have been a lot of experiments in introducing football,” CONMEBOL president Eugenio Figueredo said. "That passion has not been able to be awakened as we have it in South America. But I do think that globalization will arrive to football. At some given point we’ll have to be stronger to be more competitive and the champions will not be only from one area of the American region but from all of America."

For the United States, the opportunity to play better competition in a serious tournament is a boon. There has been a sense that the growth of the men’s national team program was being stifled, to an extent, by the modest opposition it is faced with in its region. While traveling to away qualifiers in CONCACAF is certainly challenging because of the logistics and hostile environments, only Mexico and Costa Rica have provided the Americans with consistently competitive games.

Figueredo hinted that more combined American tournaments could lie in wait, and regular matchups with heavy hitters like Brazil and Argentina could be of immense benefit to the USA and to the attention paid to soccer by the mainstream stateside.

Details of the tournament are mostly unclear thus far. An organizing committee will soon be assembled and cities will bid to host games. If past tournaments are any indication, they will be scattered throughout the country in high-capacity American football venues.

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The United States and Mexico will qualify automatically, as will all 10 CONMEBOL members. They will be joined by the 2014 Copa Centroamericana winner and the 2014 Caribbean Cup winner. The four best teams from the 2015 Gold Cup who haven’t already qualified will meet each other in two-game playoffs to dispute the final two spots.

But for this tournament to be a success, and to make it repeatable — and perhaps lay the groundwork for a second World Cup on American soil — the best talent will need to be available. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who is also a FIFA Executive Committee member, had previously said that this tournament would make no sense without full A-teams available.

He’s quite right about that. Every second Gold Cup, the biennial championship of the CONCACAF region, conflicts with World Cup qualifying and countries typically send glorified B-teams to compete. The damage to credibility and interest is severe. If this extra Copa America suffers from the same deficiency, it could hamper the viability of future tournaments.

And to have a regular championship of all the Americas would be a game-changer, for both the entire Western Hemisphere and countries like the USA and Mexico in particular — but only if it’s done right.