When the 2018 World Cup in Russia ends and the 2022 cycle begins, international soccer will be undergoing a makeover. CONCACAF confirmed Thursday that it will be getting in on the act.
CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani told Reuters that the confederation’s governing council has approved a new League of Nations tournament similar to the one introduced by UEFA, Europe’s soccer governing body, in 2014. Both CONCACAF’s and UEFA’s competitions will start in September 2018.
UEFA, CONCACAF, FIFA and other confederations have also discussed the idea of a Global Nations League, which could start as early as 2021. That would expand on UEFA’s and CONCACAF’s continental versions.
The tournament will involve all 41 of CONCACAF’s member nations. It will introduce a league structure to international soccer, with round robins in separate divisions, and with promotion and relegation. The games will be played over international breaks, and likely on biennial cycles. Per Reuters’ Simon Evans, it will involve a “final four” to determine a champion – presumably every two years – and relegation and promotion playoffs to decide movement between divisions.
Teams will be split into three divisions, initially based on their “sporting level.” CONCACAF said the seeding will be based on a preliminary series of matches played across four different dates beginning in September 2018.
It’s unclear exactly how those divisions will be aligned, or how the promotion/relegation system will work. The format will be confirmed by February.
The League of Nations will replace many friendlies on national teams’ schedules. In the cases of many CONCACAF members – mostly Caribbean Islands – that don’t have the means to schedule friendlies in the first place, it will provide guaranteed, structured games, likely under a centralized TV contract that funnels some revenue down to all of the federation’s 41 members.
“This new tournament is highly beneficial to all our member associations, since it provides significant opportunities to play important competitive matches with increased regularity throughout the year,” Montagliani told Reuters. “The biggest difference between our Nations League and the UEFA is that their nations were already playing a significant amount of games. But for us, it was to allow our countries to play a minimum amount of games over a four-year window.
“Our bigger countries have the capacity to do that,” he continued. “But the way our system was, you had countries who were playing four to six games in a four-year period. It is kind of hard then to develop football in any capacity.”
Montagliani hopes a Nations League will solve that problem. It’s one that CONCACAF’s “archaic” World Cup qualifying format exacerbated for years. It has reinforced CONCACAF’s hierarchy: the United States and Mexico at the top, several Central American nations and Canada in the middle, and dozens of minnows at the bottom. It has maintained the region’s inequality. As I explained last month:
The 17 nations, many of them tiny, that get knocked out in the first two rounds don’t get the opportunity to glean revenue from meaningful qualifying matches. And they don’t have the clout nor the cash to organize money-making friendlies. They can’t attract sponsors. Thus, they don’t have the money to invest in facilities, coaching, player development, etc., that would allow them to grow the sport domestically and close the gap on the region’s elite.
Some CONCACAF minnows don’t have the ambition to do so anyway. But those that would like to better themselves as soccer nations are discouraged by the format. Four years of investment and improvement can be ripped to shreds by one unlucky loss in a two-leg playoff.
The League of Nations will address that issue. It will guarantee games for all 41 teams, regardless of performance.
“As examples, Saint-Martin played in two competitive matches – both in Caribbean qualifying for the Gold Cup – from 2014-2016,” CONCACAF wrote in an FAQ on its website. “Thanks to the League Nations, that same member association will take part in 12-16 consequential encounters.”
And, if media rights are indeed centralized, it would guarantee a revenue stream that wasn’t previously there. That, as I wrote earlier this month, is crucial:
In every confederation other than UEFA, a country’s soccer federation is responsible for selling media rights and sponsorships for its home [World Cup] qualifiers. And friendlies are a free-for-all. So if Turks and Caicos can’t get a qualifier against the U.S. or Mexico – and because of CONCACAF’s format, it almost certainly can’t – it has no way to make money. If it has no way to make money, it can’t grow the sport in its country. If it can’t grow the sport, the global soccer hierarchy stays more or less as is. International soccer’s current structure outside Europe reinforces the status quo.
UEFA, however, introduced a centralized commercial scheme in 2012 that predates the Nations League. It sells broadcast rights to all its qualifiers as a package, then distributes the profits to its 55 member associations. That doesn’t mean San Marino is getting as much money as England. But San Marino is getting a whole lot more than it otherwise would, and England is apparently getting more than it otherwise would. Everybody seems happy.
If CONCACAF can attract comercial partners with similar success – Montagliani said some broadcasters had shown interest, and that there have been discussions – the League of Nations can be a success for the region as a whole.
The League of Nations will also serve as CONCACAF’s Gold Cup qualifying competition, and will “inform a CONCACAF ranking system that will be used as the basis for future World Cup Qualifying seeding,” according to an official CONCACAF release.
That, however, leads us into the first of a few questions about how the League of Nations will work, and whether it will work well:
Questions about the CONCACAF League of Nations
– What does this mean for the Gold Cup? If the League of Nations will double as Gold Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup isn’t going anywhere. But would the Gold Cup and the League of Nations “final four” be in the same summer? Logistically, that could work, but nations would almost certainly prioritize one over the other. You’d get B-teams at one, if not both. (You already do at every other Gold Cup.) Players are already overworked. We don’t need more soccer for the sake of more soccer. Two tournaments in the same summer, even if one is miniature, would be just that.
The reason UEFA’s “final four” concept works is that it will be played in odd-year summers, while the Euros and the World Cup are played in even years. Would CONCACAF have to move the Gold Cup to even-numbered years? And if so, would it have to make it a quadrennial event rather than biennial? Surely you wouldn’t stage a Gold Cup – or a League of Nations final four – weeks after the World Cup ended.
The Gold Cup isn’t sacred. It could be tweaked, or even scrapped. But the point is that CONCACAF probably has to decide which basket it wants to put its eggs in, the Gold Cup’s or the Nations League’s. It can’t split them between both. If it does, there are a lot of logistical concerns to resolve.
– UEFA’s Nations League format works well because Europe’s soccer hierarchy is relatively balanced. There are about as many superpowers as there are minnows. CONCACAF’s couldn’t be much more different. So what does that mean for the division structure? Perhaps there would be one top division with eight teams, split into two groups of four? And then the second and third divisions would have 16 and 17 teams, respectively, each split into four groups of four (and, in the third division, one of five)?
– Is there a chance that the League of Nations proves to be detrimental to the U.S.? We saw the benefit of a European friendly just this past week. The U.S. has varied its friendly opponents over the years to prepare for all different levels and kinds of competition. Will it still have the opportunity to play Portugal, or Brazil, or Ghana? That will depend on the Nations League format, and what exactly the group stages entail.
– On a similar note, will a League of Nations end up being boring and monotonous? Will it simply add more games against the same group of five or six teams (Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, etc.) and remove the global flavor from the U.S.’s schedule? And if the opponents are always the same, will fans really want to care about all three CONCACAF competitions, the Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying and the League of Nations?
CONCACAF will have to consider all these questions as it finalizes its plans.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.