Although both Concacaf powerhouses — the Mexico and the U.S. men’s soccer teams — tied in their latest friendly matches, expectations are still high for both sides before the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying. Anything but qualification in either first or second place would, of course, be considered a failure for both. History commands these expectations even though soccer is but a budding sport in the United States. Despite that, Honduras should not be a problem for the U.S. team, a team with high-caliber players. But it is. This problem is deeply rooted in competition, specifically the weakness of Concacaf.
Since the 1998 World Cup in France, 32 world-class teams from five confederations have come together to test themselves against each respective confederation’s best. Through 83 years of organized international play, only two confederations have split the 19 world cups between them: UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, has won 10, while Conmebol, the South American Football Confederation, won nine.
Respectfully considered one of the toughest confederations, Conmebol, based in South America, is comprised of past champions Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and rising powerhouses like Chile and Colombia. Of course, each confederation has weak countries, but even Bolivia has taken a squad to three world cups. Four out of 10 Conmebol teams directly qualify to the World Cup, and one has a playoff against the OFC conference.
To the north of Conmebol is Concacaf, a 40-team confederation dominated by the rivals Mexico and the United States. Since its inception, only 10 of its teams have even qualified for the World Cup, including the two rivals, Costa Rica and even Cuba. By reason of soccer virtue, Mexico and the United States have almost always placed in the top three, which leads to direct qualification. Both countries have placed either first and second in qualifications for the past five World Cups.
Qualifying has become exp-ected for the classic Concacaf rivals. Playing against Jamaica, Canada and Honduras is not going to get either country anywhere. In other terms, if the Milwaukee Bucks, a middle of the pack team, were in a conference with the Charlotte Bobcats and the New Orleans Hornets, which are both last place in their divisions, how can they be expected to improve? Answer: they will not. They would continue to score easy wins in a failure of a conference. The same thing is happening with the United States and Mexico.
For the sake of world soccer competition and their own competitive toughness, the United States and Mexico have to find a way to remove themselves from Concacaf. If they were willing to incur higher travel costs, the gains to their squads would be much more substantial. Of course, the first few qualifiers would be difficult and maybe neither country would qualify, as they would not be accustomed to the level of competition in Conmebol. With time comes experience, however, and with experience comes improvement.
Mexico has not gotten past the round of 16 in the last six World Cups despite having squads with players that play for European teams. Simply put, when they are matched against UEFA or Conmebol teams they are outplayed. The same goes for the United States, which was knocked out by Ghana in round 16 of the 2010 World Cup.
If Mexico and the United States did move, it would also benefit the rest of the Concacaf as well as the Conmebol, with increased competition and thus better quality matches and teams for the World Cup.