I read 16 Candles... and Neal is right. The US needs to improve the level of competitive play its national teams engage in to continue the improvements of the last decade-and-a-half. Without such improvement, the best we can realistically hope for is to remain in the unsatisfactory position of beaing a big fish in the small pond. Nobody watching soccer the way we do is ready to settle for that, however much fun it is having finally turned the table on Mexico.
In this pursuit, seeking out established and better competition in CONMEBOL is a good idea and to some extent certainly attainable. So let's do it. (Let's not, however, seek to combine CONMEBOL with CONCACAF, as some have suggested. Bad idea.) I do think that more than one major initiative is both needed and achievable, however. I suggest that we also seek to raise the level of competition within CONCACAF as a way of avoiding the big fish/small pond trap we are currently headed towards.
The most likely candidate for rapid and significant improvement is clearly Canada. Our neighbors to the north have a very well established and successful history of competitive sporting, but soccer is not yet (and not apparently anytime soon will it be) part of that happy story. That Canada is not one of the final six from CONCACAF competing for a spot in the 2006 World Cup, which really isn't as it should be. For their sake and ours, it is time to shift the plot line.
The template for soccer success established by the US is also available to Canada. Our current soccer fortunes derive very much from the FIFA decision to grant the US the 1994 World Cup final with the stipulation that a top tier professional league be formed in the wake of the tournament. From that (and a host of other key decisions and commitments) has flowed the situation we find ourselves in today where qualification for the '06 WC final was always expected and subsequently sewn up with three games remaining in the decisive hexagonal. That we have gone from soccer non-entity to this enviable state of affairs in well under two decades is compelling testimony to the efficacy of the model.
Canada ought now to be put forth by CONCACAF as the region's candidate for the next World Cup finals to be hosted by a member country. FIFA has stated that it is their intention to rotate the final among its six regional members, and with '06 in Europe and '10 in Africa, Canada's turn could come up as early as 2014 and no later than 2018.
The argument for Canada ("The sooner, the better!") can be made convincingly for several readily apparent reasons. Among them: FIFA cannot be blind to the fact of the poor balance of competition in CONCACAF and can be expected to be open to a proven means of redress to a pressing problem; increased interest and involvement in soccer by a wealthy and advanced state such as Canada will serve FIFA's interests; Canada is experienced with putting on large scale sporting events, having hosted two Olympics and set to host a third, and can be relied upon to host a successful World Cup final. Win, win, win.
"Win, win, win" might not what be what Canada manages in any World Cup final it eventually plays in, but with the several years that FIFA now gives to a hosting country to prepare there will likely be plenty of time to organize the part of the hosting effort that includes assembling a team. Nowadays, of course, this includes efforts to attract talented young players from other countries who have yet to become tied to the national team of their homeland. In Canada's case, England (and other Commonwealth countries) for political and cultural reasons presents itself as an ideal happy hunting ground. With the certainty of a World Cup final appearance four to eight years out, many a talented young Englishman who can't get a look from the England manager might be induced to make the move. Canada might this way be able to quite successfully jumpstart their national team. It's another win, win, win situation only this time we're in on it with improved competition suddenly blooms north of the border.
Of course Canada, wealthy as it is, is not the US and may for very sound reasons feel hosting a World Cup final and developing a top tier professional league not wise or feasible. Were this the case the US soccer community, in its own interest, should be prepared to offer one or both of the following forms of assistance: a co-hosting arrangement for the tournament and/or entry into MLS for Canada based and owned clubs.
The co-hosting arrangement has been prematurely proclaimed dead by some at FIFA after the Korea-Japan experience of 2002. Why anyone, anywhere would have expected Korea and Japan to set the standard for international cooperation is beyond me. They bicker heatedly, constantly over what history is being taught in the other's grammar schools. Whatever the problems there in ‘02, insisting the book closed on the subject is idiocy. International relations of far more complex, meaningful, and delicate nature occur every day between people of good will.
Germany has chosen 12 sites for the '06 final. A look at a map of the Canada/US border shows nearly 20 nearby large American and Canadian cities with sporting, transit, hotel and other facilities already in place. Most of them are within one hundred miles of the border. Finding the 12 best in the planning of a successful WC final would seem to be a difficulty of riches. Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington, and Philadelphia tantalizingly spring to mind as candidates for a dream team of venues for the US sites. (The Canadian dream city line-up, I'll leave to the Canadians.) No small matter is how each already serves as an MLS club home base, or one the league already has its eye on for the future.
It seems natural enough that MLS expansion could allow Canadian entry into the league given the history of just such integration in hockey, baseball, and basketball. Of course, there have been and continue to be significant problems for Canadian clubs in these other leagues. I don't, however, understand these problems to be strictly due to the fact that these clubs are Canada-based. Plenty of the American clubs in the NHL, MLB, and NBA are losing money. They just seem to be better able to sustain the losses. Ownership, cash flow, revenue sharing, and player salary structure are the problems for sporting clubs these days and they don't seem to respect borders. For all its shortcomings, MLS seems to have managed these problems reasonably well. I don't see why they couldn't make Canadian clubs succeed if they saw in their interest to do so and I have haven't heard them disavow interest in the notion.
I'll admit now that this begins to look also like a Trojan Horse scheme for getting the World Cup final to return to the US... well, it's that too, and I may as well cop to it. I think we need the World Cup back in the US. If Canada and/or Mexico each win the exclusive right to host before we do, it will be many years with this regional rotation schedule before the World Cup finals return. Too many years, and I don't think this serves FIFA's or our own objectives.
Teaming with Canada might just be a solid bet to get the finals back in time to give our soccer movement the second boost that just now seems needed sooner rather than later. Only winning the tournament is likely to create the sort of buzz and interest in soccer that hosting it again will.
Even the staunchest supporters of the US will have to admit that a World Cup championship is a hope too dim to rely upon. In the meantime, it might just better be a case of "Oh, Canada?"