By Ridge Mahoney
U.S. Soccer will send a team comprised mostly of MLS players to the Copa America, according to federation president Sunil Gulati, partially because European teams will not be obligated to release their players for that tournament.
For invited teams Mexico and the United States, the Copa America is not a regional championship. Their regional championship is the Gold Cup, and teams must release the players for that competition, which won't be difficult to arrange, since most of the European teams will be on summer break.
"We have the right to call up our players from Europe [for the Copa America]," says Gulati, "but we don't have the right to demand they be released. If we want to call up Tim Howard or Carlos Bocanegra or DaMarcus Beasley or Bobby Convey, their coaches can say no. They can't do that for the Gold Cup.
"It's not a question of us saying, 'Hey, we won't call them for the Gold Cup as long as you release them for Copa America.' That's not the trade-off we can make. And the fact that it's preseason is irrelevant. They can simply say, 'No.'
"Unless a European coach says it's OK, it's not an obligatory call-up. There may be advantages for some players to be playing for European clubs. Their availability for national team call-ups is certainly not one of them."
A contracted player on vacation between seasons is tied to his club, which controls his availability for loans, competitions, trials, etc., just as an MLS player cannot train or go on trial overseas during the league offseason without permission of his team.
The federation could use an MLS team for the Gold Cup and fight a dozen or so battles with individual clubs to get players, many of whom aren't established regulars like Bocanegra or Howard, released for the Copa America.
Oguchi Oneywu started last season in Belgium, was rumored to be on his way to Spain, is on loan in England for the next few months, and come June, who knows? Everton just paid a few mil to break Howard loose from Manchester United. Guess where he thinks he should be in July, or how he'd explain to Manager David Moyes about showing up injured from a clumsy tackle in Maracaibo?
Or the federation can take a path of less resistance and use the South American competition as a proving ground for its up-and-coming players, who would be match fit from playing the first three months of the MLS season. Justin Mapp dancing through Argentina? Marvell Wynne rampaging past Paraguay? Matt Reis stoning Colombia? What's not to like?
Testing as many players as possible in the Copa America, as well as using a strong squad in the Gold Cup, makes sense to him, even if many fans and journalists can't grasp the logic.
"At this point we don't know who will be on our World Cup team in three years and who will be participating right through in qualifying," says Gulati. "Clint Dempsey hadn't played too many games for our national team two years before the World Cup. Getting him games three years out would have been a big plus and we could name other players in that exact same situation. We'll field very good teams for both, the best possible teams we can for both competitions.
"There will be some players who play in both competitions, yes. How many I couldn't tell you yet."