What the Copa America Centenario could mean for American soccer

What the Copa America Centenario could mean for American soccer

Yes, the whole thing is contrived. The upcoming Copa America Centenario, held here in the United States, isn't a true championship of South America. It's a one-off event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the world's oldest continental soccer championship, inviting the rest of the Western Hemisphere along to the party.

Yes, it's a naked money grab – underscored by the choice of the U.S. and its high disposable incomes as host and by the towering ticket prices, which have hampered sales. It's a chance for the South American confederation, CONMEBOL, to cash a few extra checks, while CONCACAF – covering North America, Central America and the Caribbean – gets to share in the spoils. The Copa America Centenario conveniently comes in the wake of a series of FBI raids, indictments and arrests that may wind up costing the two governing bodies and their principals a fortune in forfeitures and other lost revenues (and kickbacks).

[ Copa America Centenario | Scores and Schedule | Standings | Teams ]

And yes, not everybody is equally keen on it. Chile, which won the last actual Copa America as the host nation last summer, is understandably reticent to potentially being dethroned so quickly after finally winning the thing on their 37th attempt. Brazil is more focused on winning Olympic gold on its home soil and has left stars like Neymar, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Marcelo off the team. And the Argentine federation, while invested in the outcome after runner-up places at the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America, has threatened to pull its team out of the tournament over government interference in its presidential elections.

But none of that means this summer's soccer festivities can't be meaningful.

Because it could mean a great deal to American and regional soccer.

Big crowds and TV ratings would boost U.S.'s chances to host the 2026 World Cup. (AP Photo)
Big crowds and TV ratings would boost U.S.'s chances to host the 2026 World Cup. (AP Photo)

It could amplify the momentum of a rapidly growing sport even further. Because, short of another World Cup coming to our shores, there will simply be no other chance to see the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Alexis Sanchez turn up here to play in a real competition. Not in a half-hearted, quarter-speed summer club exhibition, but in a real tournament with a real prize.

And speaking of the World Cup, in soccer's more responsible climate since all that trouble with the law (well, the climate of pretending that things are cleaned up, anyway), the Copa America Centenario could deliver as strong an application for the 2026 edition as the U.S. can hope for. All it would take is putting on a successful tournament that doesn't bankrupt the home country, violate human rights, double as a propaganda tool or, you know, break any laws.

After the twin calamities of awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar – and in the wake of troubled World Cups in South Africa and Brazil – the U.S. was already the favorite for 2026. It's CONCACAF's turn, after all, and America came very close to winning the 2022 hosting rights back in 2010. A strong Copa America Centenario – meaning full stadiums, good soccer, high ratings and mainstream buzz – could cement that bid.

But a successful tournament can also help galvanize a flagging national team program. The U.S. men could well use a mid-World Cup cycle boost. In their last five friendlies on American soil, they have drawn fewer than 10,000 fans – a once unimaginably weak performance.

In home games against Costa Rica, Iceland, Canada, Ecuador and Bolivia, an average of just 9,215 people have come through the gates. To put that into perspective, the worst-drawing team in Major League Soccer – FC Dallas – has drawn 13,791 on average through its first seven home games of the season. Meanwhile, 12 MLS teams are drawing at least double what the national team pulls in.

Here, too, excessively high ticket prices are being blamed. But it's just as plausible that a general apathy about the national team has taken hold. Maybe it's the mediocrity emanating from the squad – the U.S. went 10-6-4 in 2015, bombed at the Gold Cup and lost a Confederations Cup playoff against rival Mexico at the Rose Bowl; although, granted, it's 6-1-0 in 2016 thus far. Or perhaps it's the lack of identity of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team, which he rotates compulsively.

Then there's the possible advantage of a closer relationship between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. If the former proves a strong (and profitable) partner to the latter, more of these Americas tournaments could be in the offing. While that would further clutter an already saturated soccer calendar, the sporting benefits to countries like the U.S. of a regular international measuring stick outside of the World Cup would be enormous.

And then there's the club game. The CONCACAF Champions League is anemic, and the Copa Libertadores, its South American equivalent, remains historic and appealing but is lacking in strong competitors. A unified club competition could be a major boon to MLS teams and every other club west of the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet if the stakes are this high on the upside, that suggests the downsides are deep. A bad tournament at the box office and in the TV ratings, worsened by forgettable games on the field, could be damaging. And there is a reasonable argument to be made that all those things will happen. Ticket sales, as previously mentioned, have been slow. There are no official numbers yet, but plenty of seats remain available thanks to inflated prices.

As for the television side, the Copa will overlap for the most part with the European Championships, the second-most prestigious international tournament behind the World Cup. By the time the games roll around at night, will viewers be sick of soccer after a morning and afternoon spent watching the Euro?

And what of the players? Even though Copa games will kick off late, it will be hot and humid and the marquee teams will be tired from yet another long club season. It's hardly unimaginable that the playing product will suffer as a result. Most summer tournaments, after all, are marred by injury and fatigue. Such is the reality of modern soccer.

This is the promise. And those are the challenges. For an event that was primarily invented to pad bank accounts – and possibly even to enable graft – and that might never happen again, there seems to be an awful lot riding on the Copa America Centenario.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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