What started as (probably) a joke has taken on a life of its own, with the United States looking into hosting some of the notable nations left out of the World Cup next Summer. The concept of an NIT for the World Cup is funny on its face, and probably beneficial to the United States overall.
There’s of course the money – especially since Fox is going to take a bath on its World Cup coverage with the casual soccer fan unlikely to tune in without the United States participating, this could be a way to make up some of that gap. There’s also the idea of playing semi-competitive matches against some pretty good teams as a development tool for whomever the new MNT coach is going to be. Let’s not kid ourselves, even if this is a tournament, it’s going to go down as a friendly tournament.
There’s been a surprising amount of backlash for something that doesn’t seem to come with a lot of negatives. Deadspin‘s post on the topic says it “won’t likely happen” because Soccer United Marketing might not see it as profitable (a logical fallacy which both presupposes its conclusion and is almost certainly incorrect).
Soccer By Ives says it’s not worth playing against teams that also have their own flaws, evdienced by the fact that they also missed the World Cup. Have I died and woken up in an alternate universe where the United States is in a position to look down at Italy, not only still ranked well ahead of the U.S. the No. 15 team in the world, but also ahead of literally every single non-UEFA, non-CONMEBOL team in the world? There may be reasons not to play this tournament, but “Italy has flaws” is logic that… has… flaws. Um.
There is something to be said for the tournament not lining up well with MLS and European club schedules, but who cares? MLS should be on hiatus during the World Cup anyway, and if MLS teams aren’t going to release their players, it’s an even better opportunity for the new coach to evaluate either youngsters playing in Europe, or those on the fringe of the national team picture and outside of MLS (or that MLS teams are willing to release for a handful of friendly games) to develop them.
An eight-team tournament with two two groups of four each playing three group games, and a final between the winners of each group means a maximum of four games, with most of those teams only playing three. Held over a period of less than two weeks plus the final, that’s hardly a commitment that’s restrictive.
The scheduling can be a problem: the European Leagues mostly end May 13 next Spring, but Serie A (y’know, the league from which most of Italy’s players would come) don’t end until May 20. With the World Cup starting June 14, the organizers would probably want to fit the whole tournament in prior to that, and Italy would want to give some of its players a bit of a rest.
Again though, with only three group play matchdays needed (or more if it’s spaced out differently so games aren’t all back-to-back), you can have teams play Thursday May 31, Monday June 4, and Thursday June 7, with the final June 10. That may seem really condensed (and it is, to an extent), but keep in mind these are going to be friendlies with mostly B-teams, and managers won’t be afraid to cycle through lots of young talent, keeping fatigue to a minimum – the matches could even have the substitution rules of a friendly, with six changes rather than the three allowed in a competitive match.
Selfishly, I would like to see this happen, even if it’s just a series of friendlies and not any sort of full-fledged tournament. It may make more developmental sense to have the US’s Europe-based players to stay on The Continent and get in friendlies with teams wanting to tune up for the World Cup (and Italy and USA are probably coveted opponents for those wanted to prepare with a tough opponent). My format would be the group play as mentioned above, with the highest-ranked non-World Cup team from each federation invited, plus two wildcards based on name recognition:
- Chile (No. 9 FIFA, CONMEBOL Automatic berth)
- Wales (No. 14 FIFA, UEFA Automatic berth)
- USA (No. 27 FIFA, CONCACAF Automatic berth and host)
- Democratic Republic of the Congo (No. 35 FIFA, CAF Automatic berth)
- New Zealand (No. 122 FIFA, OFC Automatic berth)
- China (No. 57 FIFA, AFC Automatic berth)
- Italy (No. 15 FIFA, wildcard)
- Ghana (No. 52 FIFA, wildcard)
If any nation declines, either work down the rankings list from their federation or just make judgment calls to get the likes of Netherlands or whomever else involved.
Would this tournament be a game-changer in international soccer? No. Would it keep interest in world soccer high in the United State even though the USMNT is missing the World Cup? Yes. Would it help (however small an amount) in exciting youth development at the grassroots level? Yes. Would it be an opportunity for new names in the national team system to prove themselves? Yes.
While logistically it may be difficult, the positives – including the sheer fun of the whole thing – make it worth the effort.