The high price USMNT would pay if it doesn't host Copa America Centenario

The high price USMNT would pay if it doesn't host Copa America Centenario

Perhaps it was inevitable that the match struck by the FBI and Department of Justice and lit to international soccer's corrupted powder keg would eventually burn American soccer as well.

As some of the depraved soccer world's grand poobahs stumble around looking to avoid arrest, extradition and public humiliation, and others scramble to prepare their legal defenses, the fires continue to rage. Just on Thursday, FIFA's secretary general Jerome Valcke, the organization's highest-ranking non-elected official, was essentially fired in the midst of yet more accusations of graft – he had allegedly sold his personal allotment of World Cup tickets at multiples of their face value through a broker.

But it's becoming clear now that the United States – and the United States Soccer Federation in particular, which has come through these many ordeals fairly unscathed – could be suffering the blowback of its own actions. Or those of its legal system, anyway.

A special centenary anniversary edition of the Copa America, South America's continental championship, has been slated to be played in the United States next summer. The Copa America Centenario. It would pit all 10 South American members of the CONMEBOL confederation against six qualifying teams from CONCACAF (North America, Central America and the Caribbean) with the U.S. guaranteed to participate. But that tournament is now very much in doubt.

CONMEBOL and CONCACAF are still eager to put on the tournament and committed to doing so stateside – maximizing revenues through the U.S.'s mega stadiums and vast disposable incomes. But U.S. Soccer has become reluctant to host it. And understandably so, because this has become a big, jumbled mess.

CONCACAF's president and secretary general have both been ousted in the wake of the Department of Justice indictment, as have several other principals. CONMEBOL, likewise, has been gutted and its headquarters threaten to be raided. Meanwhile, Centenario merchandising contracts had already been awarded by those two confederations, allegedly in return for bribes running into the tens of millions of dollars. But the people in charge of multiple of those companies that bought those rights have now been indicted as well.

The USSF is unwilling to put on this tournament without significant assurances of transparency, aware as it is of the new expectation of accountability suddenly superimposed over soccer's rats' nest. We can speculate safely that the principles on the other side are eager to protect their financial interests as well, not to mention their freedom. But when it comes to this sort of thing, U.S. Soccer is, by all accounts, a sensible and cautiously run organization.

Its reluctance to risk getting into any sort of trouble is perfectly understandable and defensible. If its demands aren't met – and soon, as the timeframe to put on a good tournament ticks down – U.S. Soccer simply won't be hosting the tournament. Again, fair enough. There's a lot more at stake here than money and competition. But the consequences of blowing off the Centenario could be far-reaching.

For the U.S. men's national team, no amount of training camps and high-profile friendlies could substitute for the participation in a major tournament against some of the world's best nations. It just doesn't get this kind of competition very regularly outside of the quadrennial World Cup.

Jurgen Klinsmann needs the Copa America Centenario to test the USMNT. (AP Photo)
Jurgen Klinsmann needs the Copa America Centenario to test the USMNT. (AP Photo)

Meaningful competition hardly ever comes against anybody but the usual CONCACAF opponents in World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup, and this puts a sort of ceiling on the team's development. Of the regional rivals, only Mexico can be relied on to consistently offer serious resistance. But they have played each other six times already since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as head coach more than four years ago, and the USA hasn't lost yet.

There is the Confederations Cup, held the summer before the World Cup, but the U.S. has qualified for just three of the last eight editions – and might miss out again if a playoff with Mexico is lost on Oct. 10. This mooted Copa America, then, offers a very rare chance to test the team in big games and gain invaluable experience that should pay off at future World Cups. And if the Americans miss out on participation of the Centenario in 2016 and the Confederations Cup in 2017, it will have no real way of building up to the 2018 World Cup.

Make what you will of Klinsmann and his spotty tenure, but the learning opportunities afforded next summer could only benefit the U.S. in the long run. For the sake of the program's progress, this tournament is vital.

Which is to say nothing of American soccer's development off the field. For one, it would draw yet more fans, eager to see Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Neymar play for a major trophy in nearby cities.

And it's common knowledge that the U.S. could very well bid to host another World Cup, after it was upset – screwed? – by Qatar for the 2022 edition in most dubious circumstances, which remain the subject of much conjecture. The Copa would provide a nice opportunity for America to put on a major tournament and show just how well it can still pull off such a thing, reaffirming the success of the 1994 World Cup, whose total attendance record remains unbroken. It would also demonstrate anew how much money soccer's organizing bodies stand to make on a major tournament in the U.S., which is really the only truth in the language of the soccercrats.

But that could all be out the window now. It might be that U.S. Soccer is playing hardball and that the Copa will be salvaged. And if so, everybody will likely emerge a winner. If left unsatisfied, the Americans could soon walk away.

And in its wake would be left a pile of ashes that was once the Copa America Centenario, smoldering on American soil, along with all the opportunity it represented.

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