Gulati mulls Copa America invite

October 4, 2006
Dell'ApaBy Frank Dell'Apa
(Archive)

The U.S. national team program has been in the doldrums since June. But the team could be overdosed on activity next summer.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said he expects to receive a formal invitation this week to participate in Copa America, which starts two days after the Gold Cup final. Gulati said he has discussed the possibility of entering Copa America with the U.S. national team coaching candidates, and it is clear he is seriously considering the prospect.

Ronaldinho, Gilberto
GettyImages / Bongarts/Stuart FranklinRonaldinho and company are potential opponents if the U.S. accepts the Copa America invitation.

Playing in two continental championships in a five-week period presents logistical problems, to say the least. But the effort would be worthwhile, no matter how the U.S. performs.

Copa America has lost much of the prestige it once held as the world's longest-running continental championship. But the tournament is still highly competitive and well-supported, and will receive a boost next year because it will be held in Venezuela for the first time in a 91-year history.

In recent years, Copa America has attempted to expand its reach by inviting Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the U.S. The Iberians have not accepted the invitation but Mexico has participated in the event, with the team playing well and also bringing along several million potential television viewers. The U.S. also brought something positive to the competition, reaching the semifinals in 1995, then declining to return.

It has become apparent that Copa America needs Mexico and the U.S., and also that Mexico and the U.S. need Copa America. Participating in Copa America (and Copa Libertadores) is surely improving Mexican soccer and it would do the same for the U.S.

The U.S. greatly increased its tournament readiness between the 1993 Copa America in Ecuador and the '95 edition in Uruguay. In '93, the U.S. squandered a two-goal lead over Venezuela and was eliminated in the final match of the first round. The team recovered to reach the second round of the '94 World Cup, but had left such a weak impression with South Americans that it was underestimated in the '95 Copa America. In that tournament, Argentina coach Daniel Passarella rested starters such as Gabriel Batistuta, the U.S. won a 3-0 upset and finished in fourth place.

Had the U.S. continued to play in Copa America, it might have changed the face of the tournament, and also had a positive effect on the game in this country.

There were, of course, conflicts. These included trying to establish the MLS and trying to convince European-based players that Copa America was a good place to spend their vacation.

There will be similar conflicts next year. The Gold Cup is set for June 6-24. Copa America is scheduled for June 26-July 15, though neither Mexico nor the U.S. would likely play its opening match until June 28. The MLS will be in full swing and Euro-based players will be needing time off.

The U.S. might have to send a reinforced Under-23 team to Copa America. The team could get embarrassed. Or, it could pull off a surprise or two. Whatever happens, the group would learn from the experience -- just as the U.S. team learned from adversity in 1993.

It's called raising the bar. Maybe this is raising the bar a little too high, but it's either that or setting up ersatz competitions and friendlies. U.S. coaches and players have competitive attitudes. They need to be placed in highly competitive situations in order to learn how to channel their energy and tactics. This will pay off in the long run, not only on the field but also in the marketing arena, since the U.S. would be in a position to someday play host to Copa America.

Mexico played in Copa America, the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup last year and its clubs entered the CONCACAF Champions Cup, Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana. If another worthwhile competition were to be introduced, Mexico would figure that one into its juggling act.

The U.S. must also be able to keep more than one ball in the air.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.