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Expanded World Cup tournament could help US, Canada in different ways

When FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently floated the idea of expanding the World Cup finals tournament to 48 teams from the current 32-team format, there were plenty of groans and moans.

The reaction is understandable for several reasons, of course. While Infantino hasn't had a lot of time to make a real imprint publicly as head of FIFA, his predecessor was fond of coming up with harebrained ideas in soccer. So that's strike one.

And then there's the prospect of expanding the World Cup itself. While I get the impression most American fans are content with a 32-team tournament, which has been around since 1998, there remains pockets of pundits and fans around the world who sniff at the size of the competition these days, wishing for the purer days, to 24 teams from 1982-94, or even to 16 teams from 1954-78.

The truth is, while a modern-day qualification system that only resulted in 16 teams qualifying would produce a higher caliber of games, historically the smaller tournaments of the past were not equitable in how teams qualified. One could still argue that Europe still holds a disproportionate number of slots, with 13, while two more populous continents with a similar number of countries (Africa: five slots; Asia: four and a half slots) have less than that number combined.

For any talk of the quality of soccer on display, it seems obvious that expanding the tournament over time has benefitted the World Cup and soccer itself globally, with less represented confederations getting a larger share of the slots.

And that's where the United States and Canada come into the story.

How would a 48-team World Cup benefit the US? They're already qualifying for the tournaments now, so would it really help them? It would, but probably not through the US national team itself.

Instead, the main benefit could come from bolstering the chances of hosting the tournament, as CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani discussed this week. The United States already has the stadia, the accommodations and infrastructure to host a 48-team World Cup, and could do it at pretty much any time. That provides an advantage, as Montagliani noted fewer countries around the world would be equipped to take on the additional burden of adding 16 teams to the World Cup.

As for Canada, while they too could play a role in CONCACAF hosting an expanded World Cup, something Montagliani also noted this week, one would think a larger World Cup field could bridge the gap for them to qualify for their first tournament since 1986.

Canada have been a Top 12 team in the current and previous round of World Cup qualifying, and expanding CONCACAF's number of slots for the World Cup – to seven, let's say – would not guarantee Canada a coveted spot in the tournament, but it would increase the odds. And with Canada appearing to get even closer to Top 6 status in the region each cycle, the combination of national team improvement and a larger pool of teams reaching the World Cup could help them reach paydirt.

And ultimately, that could fuel further improvement. As we've seen with the United States, the twin pillars of qualifying for a World Cup (1990) with hosting a World Cup (1994), followed shortly thereafter by the launch of Major League Soccer (1996) has done wonders for the interest and quality of soccer in the United States. Perhaps a similar trend could be kickstarted for the Canadian national team with a World Cup qualification?

So while the cynics among us may scoff at Infantino's proposal to expand the World Cup field, and for good reason, there could also be a huge silver lining if a 48-team tournament comes to pass for the US and Canada alike. Time will tell, but it may not be a terrible idea after all.

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