U.S. could have flourished at 2019 Copa America but won't get a chance
Once United States national team fans knew that their team would not be playing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, among the many topics raised (besides revolutionary changes within U.S. Soccer, of course) was the date of the next tournament for the U.S. men's national team.
Although not as illustrious as the World Cup, the 2019 Copa America in Brazil could have been framed as the perfect tournament for a new generation of players to start turning the page after that night in Couva last October. Lionel Messi and Argentina, Neymar and Brazil, Luis Suarez and Uruguay, James Rodriguez and Colombia and many more: What a great way to prepare a team to qualify for Qatar 2022.
Alas, it was not to be. There will be no U.S. team at the 2019 Copa America, leaving USMNT fans wondering when exactly Christian Pulisic Co. might actually play, you know, a big game.
"Those young players are going to miss out on a lot," former U.S. international Charlie Davies said to ESPN FC. Davies was just 21 when he was part of the U.S. team that went up against Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia in the 2007 Copa America.
"In a Copa America, you compete against world-class players. It would be such a valuable experience for our young guys," Davies said. "We played against Argentina, and I just sat there in awe watching [Juan Roman] Riquelme and how easy he made it look. When you see that kind of level with your own eyes, you then understand how much more you need to work. You get a taste of a higher level, and it motivates you. It inspires you."
It's important to understand why the U.S. is not able to send a team to Brazil. It comes down to the scheduling conflict between the 2019 Copa and the 2019 Gold Cup; the two tournaments will run concurrently in June 2019. A CONCACAF spokesperson confirmed to ESPN FC that CONMEBOL approached CONCACAF about CONCACAF teams participating in the 2019 Copa, and there were "discussions on how to ensure the success of both tournaments."
In the end, it was determined that it was not feasible for CONCACAF teams to play at the 2019 Copa. Previous instances of the Copa America that involved teams from CONCACAF and took place in the summer of a Gold Cup were played at different times. For example, the 2015 Copa America that featured a Mexico B team ended on July 5 of that year, two days before the start of the 2015 Gold Cup.
This is understandable from the CONCACAF perspective. The Gold Cup is the premier national team competition, and they want all U.S. soccer fans to be focused on it, not a CONMEBOL tournament.
Had the Copa America been scheduled for June and the Gold Cup in July, or vice-versa, then a U.S. B-team in Brazil would have been plausible. As it is, the U.S. wasn't even invited to the 2019 Copa America, as confirmed to ESPN FC by a U.S. Soccer spokesperson.
While there remains the possibility of a 16-team Copa America in 2020 hosted in the U.S., the 2019 Gold Cup is at present the only competitive tournament that a full USMNT squad will play between the 2016 Copa and the 2022 World Cup. Yes, the U.S. played in and won the 2017 Gold Cup, but that was with a mixture of "A" and "B" players. One should expect the same for the 2021 Gold Cup, too, given that "A team" resources will quite rightly be dedicated to the Hexagonal.
There is a nagging sense of the unknown here. The young players are the future of the U.S., but how can they get experience without tournaments such as the Copa?
"My mindset during the 2007 Copa was to be a sponge," Davies said. "I went up against [Colombian DF] Mario Yepes. That helped me when I was at the 2009 Confederations Cup going against Carlos Puyol or Lucio. I knew I could compete against players of that level."
An expanded Copa America in 2020 and the 2021 Confederations Cup are still possibilities, as is the 2020 Olympics for the Under-23 team, but with just one full senior team tournament for sure on the docket before 2022, this youth-laden USMNT squad runs a risk of lacking big tournament experience when it arrives to Qatar -- assuming it qualifies.
Not all USMNT questions would have been answered in a 2019 Copa America, but a lot would have been learned.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .