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Shame, Shame on U.S. Soccer for Skipping Copa America

October 07, 1998|ALEX JOHNSON | WASHINGTON POST

U.S. Soccer's decision to skip the Copa America is shortsighted but predictable.

The U.S. showing at the World Cup painfully demonstrated the gap between the national team and its counterparts at the top of the game. The only sensible approach is that taken by the coaches of the world's national basketball teams, who lobbied to allow NBA stars into the Olympics. Even though they knew their teams would be crushed, they also recognized that the only way to catch up was to take their lumps and learn.

Similarly, the U.S. soccer stars of the future can never hope to play as well as the stars of Argentina and Brazil unless they actually play the stars of Argentina and Brazil. It's seemingly an obvious point, but the traditionally inward-looking U.S. establishment -- for decades drawn from youth and collegiate administrators who owed their positions more to politics than to accomplishments in the sport -- is conditioned to be suspicious of internationalizing the American game ... so much so that U.S. Soccer Federation President Bob Contiguglia's rationale for stiffing the Copa America is that it would interfere with the Major League Soccer season.

Of course, far more established and prestigious leagues than MLS routinely work around major international tournaments -- inconvenience doesn't compel Germany to snub the European Championships, after all.

Contrast the U.S. standoffishness with the agenda announced last week by Enrique Borja, who as the new head of the Mexican federation is Contiguglia's counterpart to the south. The very first item on his five-point list is to reorganize the Mexican league season expressly to better accommodate the national team's international commitments. That's a significantly bigger headache for the Mexican soccer behemoth than it is for the United States.

Fifth on Borja's list, by the way, is to improve the federation's public and media relations, a useful example for some of the pre-Alan Rothenberg holdovers at the USSF who resented Rothenberg's great strides toward broadening the American view of soccer. But even Rothenberg is only one man, and it will take more than his single aggressive administration to haul the United States to within shouting distance of international respectability.

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