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United States' regular participation in Copa America uncertain - Sunil Gulati

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati would like to see the U.S. national team compete in future Copa America tournaments, but said challenges remain in making regular participation in South America's quadrennial championship a reality.

"What's going to happen with Copa America is unclear," Gulati told a group of reporters before the U.S. met Mexico in a World Cup qualifier on Friday. "A number of things [are] in flux right now."

In June, the United States hosted the successful Copa America Centenario, a joint venture between CONMEBOL, South America's confederation, and CONCACAF, which includes teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean, in celebration of the event's 100th anniversary.

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The Americans finished fourth in the 16-team tourney, which included global powers like Argentina, Brazil and champion Chile and the seven other CONMEBOL teams, plus six more squads from CONCACAF.

The month-long competition drew huge crowds across the U.S. and was a hit commercially. But whether a combined Copa can become a fixture on the international calendar still remains to be seen.

"Copa America poses a particular challenge for the U.S. and Mexico and an even more particular one for the U.S.," Gulati said, noting that FIFA only requires clubs to release players for official games within their own region.

"The challenge is simply that the invited teams that are not part of CONMEBOL do not have a mandatory release of players, so we can't get our European-based players. If you can't get your European-based players, automatically we're missing a substantial part of our top team. On top of that, you're playing in the middle of the MLS season.

"The last one, the Centenario, was different because we got that on the calendar, and therefore it was a mandatory release.

The United States went toe-to-toe with South American heavyweights like Argentina in this summer's Copa.

"But the thought of playing in a competition like Copa America under the current setup as a guest team, which means it's not on the [FIFA] calendar for CONCACAF teams, means it's not something that I think is practical. Would we love to play in it, given the competition? The answer is 'of course.'"

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann would also love to see his team participate regularly. The German-American said on many occasions that facing some of the sport's truly elite teams is the fastest way to raise the level of the domestic program.

It's even been speculated that CONCACAF and CONMEBOL could permanently merge, creating a single confederation for the Americas. Gulati, however, is not in favor of that idea, in part because it might make qualifying for the World Cup more difficult.

"The merger is not something anyone has talked about," Gulati said. "It's not something we're pushing for and CONCACAF is pushing for.

"[But] more cooperation [between the organizations] I think is likely, and greater possible participation in competitions is quite possible," he added.

And that could well include another combined Copa at some point.

"Can I see [an expanded] Copa America happening again?" he asked. "Yes."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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