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Jul 5, 2006

Copa America the perfect training ground

In the next four years, the U.S. has to learn how to compete with Europe's best national teams. A good place to start would be with South America's best teams in the Copa America.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is considering a standing invitation to play in the Copa America, scheduled for June 26-July 15, 2007, in Venezuela. If so, this will be the first U.S. appearance in the Copa since 1995, when it surprised Argentina and reached the semifinals in Uruguay.

In 1993, the U.S. performed poorly in the Copa America in Ecuador and was eliminated when it surrendered two late goals to Venezuela in the first round. But that was a learning experience, and the team improved for the 1994 World Cup and the '95 Copa America.

Since then, the U.S. has gone outside North America to participate in just three major international events, the '98, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. It is time to get back involved with South America.

There are a couple of potential conflicts, though.

First, the MLS season will be in full swing in June and July. And the CONCACAF Gold Cup is set for June 6-24. This would interrupt the MLS season for a month and a half; but it would be better to do so with real competitions than with exhibitions.

The U.S. would have to develop two national teams to be able to compete in both the Gold Cup and Copa America. One of those teams could be composed mainly of Europe-based players, the other of mostly domestic players.

No, the U.S. does not have a talent pool deep enough to accommodate both tournaments. Yes, one or both of those U.S. teams likely would fall in the early going.

But the overall effect would be to give the U.S. players international experience. Image makers and sponsors might not approve of the results, but the U.S. team would grow from the experience, win, lose or draw. That is what happened in the 1993 Copa America; fewer people were paying attention to the U.S. team then, so it was a lesson learned in semiprivacy. This time, should the U.S. fail in the Gold Cup or Copa America, there will be many more eyes watching.

There never will be as much attention on the U.S. as there was when the team lost to the Czech Republic and Ghana and tied Italy last month, though. Despite the disastrous experience in Germany, all is not lost. The U.S. will take something from those defeats and, eventually, improve. Learning lessons the hard way can be painful, but U.S. soccer seems fated to operate this way.

By participating in Copa America, the U.S. also could be previewing the future of the region.

CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, provides much of the talent for world soccer and two of the most attractive teams (Argentina and Brazil) in international competitions. But the confederation's influence depends solely on the success of Argentina and Brazil because the continent has only 10 votes among the more than 200 FIFA members. CONCACAF, meanwhile, adds little to the competitive side of world soccer but has almost 50 members, and the U.S. is a potential gold mine for investment and player development.

Someday, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF could combine. Costa Rica and Mexico are playing in Copa America. Mexican clubs are involved in the Copa Libertadores. Inevitably, there will be more interplay between the two confederations. The MLS is setting up interleague tournaments with Mexican clubs, and that is a good start at improving the level of play in the league. And the U.S entering the Copa America is a major step toward a united Western Hemisphere.

Administrators and investors have long been hoping for scenarios such as Boca Juniors playing the New York Red Bulls before a full house in Giants Stadium, and with something at stake. Barcelona, Celtic and Chelsea are touring the U.S. this summer, and should attract decent crowds. However, these are exhibitions, and touring teams simply cannot continue to generate the interest and revenue of high-grade competitions.

One day, Copa America could be staged in the United States of America. Something (revenue) could be gained, but something else (tradition) could be lost. A U.S. Copa America is a long way off, though. The first order of business for the U.S. is to find ways to improve the level of play in the MLS and translate that to the national team.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.