Watching the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying matches last week offered a reminder that, apart from the World Cup itself, the qualifiers are just about the biggest games that the United States plays. Teen sensation Christian Pulisic scored both goals in a much-needed home victory against Trinidad and Tobago, and Michael Bradley scored one of the best goals in American history to earn a 1-1 draw away against Mexico.
Now, though, the summer stretches before us without a major tournament. And if FIFA has its way, the fun will be taken out of World Cup qualifying, too.
The potential culprit is the proposed 48-team World Cup, which would — if approved — first take place in 2026. This would be an increase of 16 teams from the current edition. If it comes to pass, the process of qualifying, which is now pressure-packed, will be a straightforward matter for most of the decent teams in the world.
Under the proposed breakdown, CONCACAF’s places in the tournament would nearly double, from three automatic qualifiers to six for the region, with a seventh team going to a playoff.
For a team like Panama, which has never qualified for a World Cup, this would be a boon. The Panamanians would be the favorites to finish in the region’s top six. For such teams as Mexico and the U.S., though, which already make the top three almost every year, qualifying would be a breeze. Mexico hasn’t failed to qualify since it was banned from the tournament in 1990. The last time the U.S. missed out was 1986. Double the region’s qualifying slots, and you might as well award both a permanent spot.
It would be a shame to lose that excitement, especially since CONCACAF is very short on non-World Cup excitement already. The biannual Gold Cup feels more like an exhibition series than it does a continental championship. That’s partly because it’s held too often, and partly because many of the teams simply aren’t that good.
Last summer’s Copa America, a special edition of the South American championship that included the best squads from North and Central America, was closer to an important summer tournament. But there are no plans for a repeat of that one-off event.
The FIFA Confederations Cup, contested between the champions of each region’s tournament, starts this week but probably will be canceled in future years because of a lack of interest.
Last Sunday’s game between the United States and Mexico was, as always, a riveting matchup, with a raucous Mexican crowd serving as the backdrop for the battle between CONCACAF’s best teams.
If the 48-team World Cup comes to fruition, these games will be little more than exhibitions, if they happen at all. It would be a terrible loss for American soccer fans.
• The Mexican soccer federation repeatedly claims that it can’t do anything to stop the homophobic chants that accompany every goal kick by the opposing goalkeeper, not that the federation has really even tried. In the match against the U.S., participation in the chant by the Mexican fans was nearly universal. Perhaps they could take the lead from Minnesota United, which not only plays a video explaining why the chant is banned before games but also is ready to remove fans who ignore that directive.
• The Premier League coaching carousel is strange at the best of times, but Southampton’s firing of Claude Puel, above, after just one season is hard to understand. The Dutchman took a depleted squad to eighth in the league, as well as reaching the League Cup final — a decent season for any Saints manager. It’s hard to know what Southampton wanted, exactly.
• Cristiano Ronaldo is the latest superstar in Spain to be accused of tax fraud, with authorities charging him with failing to pay $16 million worth of taxes over four years. It’s similar to cases brought against other players, including Lionel Messi, who was convicted and sentenced to 21 months in prison. That sentence, as with many sentences of less than two years in Spain, was suspended.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
MLS: Seattle at NYC, noon Saturday, ESPN. The MLS scheduling system means that East-West games are rare, making this the only meeting between the Sounders and New York City this year. For the second consecutive year, Seattle has endured a slow start to its season, in part because the Sounders are an ugly 1-5-2 on the road. Going to NYC won’t be easy.
NWSL: Washington at Chicago, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. This game’s excitement was tempered a little when Washington sensation Mallory Pugh returned from international duty with an injury, which should cause her to miss out on a trip to Chicago. The Red Stars have a chance to go, if briefly, into first place with a victory. With Pugh out, they’re the favorites.
Confederations Cup: Mexico vs. Portugal, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS1. The Confederations Cup might be the best chance to see Mexico at full strength ahead of next summer’s World Cup. The team has all but qualified for next summer, meaning that its fall qualifiers will be straightforward affairs. But the chance to play Cristiano Ronaldo and company has Mexico geared up for this match.
Confederations Cup: Chile vs Cameroon, 1 p.m. Sunday, FS2. It’s worth remembering that Chile won Copa América two consecutive years. The South American squad doesn’t have the star power of, say, Brazil, but it seems to play best come tournament time. Cameroon, as the African champion, is the tournament wild card. No one knows what to expect from the Indomitable Lions.