Merging the American Soccer Confederations, Pt 1: Issues

Why merging CONCACAF & CONMEBOL is necessary and will help MLS, North American soccer and make The Americas a rival to Europe
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, March 16, 2012

Merging the American Soccer Confederations - CONCACAF

Comparing the scorelines from the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matches over the last two nights, supporters should be able to see a major flaw with the highest club competition for North American, Central American and Caribbean clubs.

Santos Laguna (MEX) 6 – 1 Seattle Sounders (USA) [agg. 7-3]
UNAM Pumas (MEX) 8 – 0 Isidro Metapán (ELS) [agg. 9-2]

And to be fair, the Mexican clubs weren’t even playing at their best.

These matches having only occurred hours before both giant clubs from Manchester (#1 & 2 in the EPL) were unceremoniously dropped out of the Europa League, UEFA’s secondary competition, by Sporting Lisbon of Portugal and Athletic Bilbao, the 7th ranked team from Spain. And this, just a few days before tiny Cypriot club APOEL Nicosia, a true minnow of minnows, made it thru to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, which will now see seven different European nations represented.

It would seem that club competition in Europe is becoming more, well, competitive. Yes, many of the leagues still have “superclubs” running their domestic scenes, but for a few reasons (less transfer movement due to sluggish global economy, sponsorship cash drying up and too many clubs in the red, etc.) the continental club competitions are becoming much closer.

When competition is closer and the home team has a chance of hosting and possibly beating the big away clubs, it’s easy to pack San Mames in Bilbao full of energy. Conversely, if Pumas fans know they are about to drub the champions of El Salvador, why even show up or get excited for the match?

The Issues

On the club level, it’s easy to see that the CONCACAF Champions league is dominated by Mexican clubs. Of all eras of the competition since beginning in 1962, Mexican clubs have won 27 times and come in second place 12 times. US clubs have only won twice (DC 1998, LA 2000) and came in runner up twice (LA 1997, RSL 2010-11). Having never had either a winner or a runner-up, Canadian clubs have fared even worse in the same 50 year timespan.

Since the modern CONCACAF Champions League era began in the 2008-09 season, five of the six finalists have been Mexican clubs - with Real Salt Lake as the only outsider. With the results from Wednesday night’s matches, 3 of 4 semifinalists are from Mexico, with the lone MLS representative Toronto FC – who did not even qualify for the Champions League through MLS - standing about as much chance of getting thru to the final as the MLS clubs from Florida.

Mexican clubs have loads of money from big television companies and sponsors, tremendous youth talent who play the game well, savvy fans who demand technically good soccer, a nation of over 100 million passionate fans who devoutly worship futbol, their clubs and their national team and the focus of being the primary sport for all that money and energy.

On the field all of that begets good players, talented imports from throughout the Americas and ultimately very strong club soccer. Theoretically, if you dropped the Mexican league into Europe this season, its clubs would fair quite well. It would not match Spain or England, but it would give the Italian and German leagues a run for their money. Mexican soccer, only because of geography and being politically limited to the CONCACAF region, is the most underrated in the world.

The problem is it has even more potential, but little way to get there competitively. As the numbers above from the CCL show, they are giant fish stuck inside a tiny CONCACAF fishbowl.

It is not good (or very interesting) for Mexican clubs to dominate everyone else regionally. For most MLS clubs, their Mexican counterparts are a step or more above them. In the athletic and strength part of the game, American and Canadian MLS clubs match Mexican clubs assuredly, if not most around the world. But technically and tactically, Mexican clubs are two steps ahead. There are times when Mexican clubs play MLS sides in these CCL tournaments (less in friendlies) that they lull the North Americans into a false sense of reality, almost to score at will at the later stages (see Santos Laguna v. Seattle Sounders). The gulf in class is enormous.

Again, as it always does, it comes back to money. Mexican clubs have much more if it, and they have better domestic and imported players.

Mexican youth soccer players are very good and are getting better rapidly. One of the best ways to gauge their abilities is on the international stage. At the last FIFA U-20 Youth World Cup in 2011, Mexico came in 3rd place. The United States and Canada did not qualify for the tournament. That same year, Mexico hosted and won the FIFA U-17 Youth World Cup. The top 3 winners of the tournament’s Golden Ball (best player) were all Mexican.

The Mexican youth are progressing, while North American MLS clubs still mostly stock their rosters with domestic college players who have had their soccer potential limited. On a recent failed trial to West Ham United, talented defender George John of FC Dallas found out quite starkly that North American youngsters go pro, way too late. On his return he stated: “I’m 24-years-old. I’ve only been a professional for three years and guys over there that are 24, they’ve been professionals for seven, eight years. I’m playing catch up, Americans are playing catch up. That’s what I learned. I feel like a young pro but over there at 24, you’re not young anymore.” 

To their footballing credit, Mexicans figured that out long ago.

Not only do the Mexican clubs have more talented players filling up their domestic clubs and raising the bar, but they also import many foreign guns (no pun intended). These cash-filled clubs can simply outspend their Caribbean, Central American and North American foes by a long shot. With that, they bring in top Chilean, Brazilian, Argentinian and Latin American players. The attraction is simple for South American players who see Mexican clubs as offering a similar level of play to the top in their region (Argentina or Brazil) competitively, similar culture and linguistics, less travel to get back home and the bottom line, usually the most money they will get in the Western Hemisphere to play professionally. Only European clubs will likely pay them as much, and with the limited transfer activity in the past year and likely short-term, Mexican soccer is still looked upon quite favorably by South American footballers.

On the senior men’s National Team side, CONCACAF is made up 40 nations. Most of these nations are tiny Caribbean nations that consequently stand little chance of defeating the superpower of Mexico or even the USA. Additionally, these nations even struggle to consistently qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and rarely make it to the FIFA World Cup. Mexico is still dominant over CONCACAF men’s national teams. However, in the last 10-15 years, the senior side of the USA Men’s National Team has given Mexico a run for their money in both World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup play.

With the women’s National Teams in CONCACAF, things are a little different as the USA has always been a world superpower. The world’s WNTs, and CONCACAF, are catching up certainly, but there is still a long way to go. The recent CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying tournament held in January in Vancouver displayed the vast inequities of CONCACAF on the feminine side. In 3 matches in the group stage, the USA outscored their opponents 31 to 0. Not in gridiron football, but soccer. The USWNT went on to score 7 more unanswered goals in the knockout stage to claim the title and a berth in the Olympics. 38 to 0. The gulf in class on the women’s side in CONCACAF is too big for good competition, entertainment or common sense. If only we could have played Brazil too, oops sorry, getting ahead of myself, more on that later.

With all that cash, quality technical play, huge fan-bases and quality players, is it bad that Mexican clubs similarly dominate CONCACAF? Is it bad that the USA and Mexico dominate the Gold Cup and are locks for nabbing 2 of the 3.5 World Cup slots allocated to CONCACAF? Is it terrible that the US Women’s National Team runs up gridiron football scores versus regional opponents?

On all accounts, the answer is yes.

It is bad for Mexican clubs. They cannot grow, the competitions are not balanced and they will continue to dominate CONCACAF for at least another generation. It will take too long for MLS to financially and technically be capable of matching their Mexican peers. For MLS clubs, it is limiting and humbling to get hammered by wealthier and stronger Mexican clubs every year. Not exactly a way to show the world – and casual sports fans - that the league should be considered major either domestically versus other sports or internationally relative to other soccer leagues. For Central American clubs it’s suffocating and getting worse, and for almost all Caribbean clubs, it’s becoming useless even to aspire in the CCL.

For men’s national teams, again it is competitive, but really it’s a party of two and everyone else is waiting for a table. On the women’s side, it’s the USA as sole headliners, Mexico and Canada in distant co-starring roles and everyone else in the region are just blurry extras in a poorly written CONCACAF slap-stick comedy.

Because of the geographic and political makeup of CONCACAF, things will not get much better. The limited resources of the bulk of the small Caribbean national teams and their clubs, is by default a barrier to improve the CONCACAF Champions League, Gold Cup or regional WC qualifying in this part of the world. The Central Americans on the club and national front have also been quite stagnant in recent times. And with a growing MLS and the Mexican hegemony not diminishing, they will struggle in the coming years and decades.

With 40 members, most of whom aren’t competitive, and 2 that rule the roost either economically, competitively or both, CONCACAF as a competitive regional grouping has been structured to fail. It is just an American Aristocrat, a Mexican bully…and 38 others. And the worst part is there is no sign of improvement. The label “CONCAJOKE” has long since been created to describe this never-ending satire of a continental soccer confederation, yet the title applies as aptly today as it day then.

The CONCACAF name and logo and its incarnations have bordered on amateur to childish over the years. At one point, a group of very well paid adults decided to name it: TFC (The Football Confederation), thankfully returning back to the CONCACAF alphabet soup shortly thereafter. The current confederation logo however, used since 2004, looks ominously like a soccer ball stuck in a maelstrom. How amazingly ironic.

Without delving into the politics (that is a book on its own) of the region and continental soccer body, to put it mildly, it has been a corrupt circus of kleptomania, self-service, and dysfunctional incompetence for quite some time.

The time for change and solutions is here.

Next week: Part 2 of ‘Merging the American Soccer Confederations’ deals with the solution and benefits as a result of merging The Americas in soccer.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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