Playing against foreign clubs is nothing new to D.C. United.
Mexico's Club America has had so many games in the U.S., it considers the Los Angeles Coliseum a "second home," and is eager to return to site which attracted more than 88,000 spectators for a game against Chivas last month.
But the D.C. United-Universidad Catolica game at RFK Stadium Tuesday night and the America-Atletico Nacional match at the Coliseum Sept. 21 could be previews of the future. When D.C. United tied Universidad Catolica of Chile, 1-1, in the Copa Sudamericana, it marked the first time a U.S. team had entered a South American competition. When Club America meets Atletico Nacional of Colombia at the Coliseum, it will be the first time a Mexican team has played in a South American competition in the U.S.
Are these more signs of a move toward a soccer-united Western Hemisphere? There are many reasons -- mostly historical -- to maintain a division between North American (CONCACAF) and South America (CONMEBOL), but there are many economic factors which are drawing the two confederations closer. Put simply, the money, stadia and much of the future of soccer are concentrated in the U.S.; the organization, political clout, and much of the talent are South America-based.
It seems inevitable that organizers and promoters would optimize the strengths of both regions. For decades, exhibitions involving Latin American clubs have attracted significant crowds in the U.S. The next logical crossover step is to stage meaningful competitions. This is already being done on a national team basis. The U.S. has a standing invitation to participate in Copa America, though it has not accepted the offer since reaching the semifinals in 1995 in Uruguay. Mexico regularly participates in Copa America, twice finishing runnerup. CONCACAF invites the South Americans to the Gold Cup, the presence of Brazil or Colombia making a major difference in the level of media and spectator interest in the tournament.
However, inter-confederational competition on the club level has not yet been fully explored. The D.C. United-U. Catolica match attracted more than 12,000 spectators on a weekday night. Should United advance to the quarterfinals , those numbers will increase. (It should also be noted that the quality of support is important; the sheer loyalty and passion demonstrated by the United fans forming a basis for growth. The fact is, there have never been great numbers of truly knowledgeable American spectators in any sport, the interest level often being driven by a hard-core group, combined with media advocacy and promotion; the vast majority of fans then jump on and off the bandwagon).
The Copa Sudamericana is a recently-contrived tournament, the champion earning $795,000 (of a $5 million pot), about half the salary budget for many MLS teams, making this a cheap version of the Copa Libertadores. And this is where the real future of the region's soccer could be, should the confederations continue to merge. The Copa Libertadores is the hemisphere's response to the European Champions League. There is a huge gap between the two events in terms of sponsorship and television exposure. But huge financial gaps have a way of narrowing.
In fact, the choices for the Copa Libertadores are either to reduce that financial gap or slip toward oblivion. That choice does not have to be made immediately, but CONMEBOL executives are attempting to react by emulating the Champions League competitive format and allowing more teams to qualify. The result was an all-Brazil final this year, Sao Paulo defeating Atletico Paranaense, a matchup which could imply that the Brazilians are going to dominate the Libertadores, with competition only to be expected from Argentine clubs. Possible dominance by the richest, most populous country is to be expected, and it will be difficult for the Chilean and Uruguayan clubs to keep up. But there will also be a trickle-down economic effect and the financial and media interest the Brazilians contribute will benefit all.
Yet, the future for the hemisphere is going to be determined as much by the U.S. as Argentina, Brazil, or Mexico, due to supply side sporting economics. The U.S. offers media exposure, variety of stadia, and a melting pot population which the South Americans simply cannot resist.
Argentina and Brazil will be among the favorites, and two or three other CONMEBOL nations will make positive contributions to, the Germany 2006 World Cup. But as well-supported and competent as many of their clubs can be, Argentina and Brazil soccer clubs have been reduced to the status of farm teams for Europe.
The Brasilerao and Argentine Primera Division championships are captivating, viable leagues but they are actually second-division competitions, the clubs having exported the equivalent of an entire first division.
Should D.C. United overcome U. Catolica in Chile next Thursday, it will meet either Banfield of Argentina or Fluminense of Brazil in the quarterfinal, though a positive result is not likely unless United goalkeeper Nick Rimando takes some lessons in composure and positioning from Catolica's Jose Maria Buljubasich.
Next time, though, it could be D.C. United or the New England Revolution against Boca Juniors, River Plate, Corinthians, Cruzeiro, or Flamengo. Or, it could be the Los Angeles Galaxy against Club America or Chivas, the first match at The Home Depot Center, the second at the Coliseum. In this case, the conception of "home" team could be blurred. But the matchup would spike interest in the game and the profits would be huge.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .