You’ll be seeing a lot of the US Men’s National Team this summer, and it begins on Thursday night in Denver with the Concacaf Nations League Finals.
Wait, what’s that? We thought you might ask this question. Here’s everything you need to know about the Concacaf Nations League Finals, as well as the Summer of Soccer for the US Men’s National Team.
The Concacaf Nations League: What is this thing?
It’s a new competition to give countries more competitive matches throughout the calendar year instead of loading up on friendlies. Europe is doing the same thing, and so maybe it’s not the worst idea that Concacaf is doing it too. From a Team USA perspective, getting friendly matches with top European sides will only become more difficult in the future.
But the problem is while UEFA is the best confederation in the world, Concacaf ... isn’t. Like there’s two good countries, the occasional feisty side from Central America, and a bunch of semi-professional teams that aren’t anywhere near competitive on an international landscape. That’s not their fault, but Grenada just doesn’t have the population or economy to compete at the highest levels of world football.
So the USA is in it, right?
Indeed! The USA won their group with Canada and Cuba (despite an awful loss in Toronto) over the last two years starting in September of 2019. They were in one of the four “League A” groups, and those four winners are competing on Thursday in the semifinals, and Sunday in the Final.
There are three leagues: A, B, and C. If you win your group, you move up a level in the next Nations League Finals to the next league (from C to B, or from B to A). If you finish last in your group, you move down a level in the next Nations League Finals (from A to B, or from B to C).
Match schedule (all matches in Denver)
Semifinal: Honduras vs. USA: June 3rd, 7:30 p.m.
Semifinal: Costa Rica vs. Mexico: June 3rd, 10:00 p.m.
Final: Winners of semifinals: June 6th, 9:00 p.m.
So it’s the Concacaf Nations League Final ... but it’s a semifinal?
Correct. The final-four-esque tournament being played Thursday and Sunday is the Final (capital F), which consists of two semifinals and a final (lower case F). Only in world football.
So is this to be champion of Concacaf?
No. That’s the Gold Cup, which starts July 2nd and runs through August 1st of this year. The Concacaf Nations League is a separate competition that’s never been held before.
Will this help the USA get back in the World Cup?
Also no. That will be decided via The Octagonal, which replaces the old Hexagonal of Concacaf qualifying. World Cup Qualifiers start in September, and by coincidence all four Nations League semifinalist teams are already qualified there as well. Each received automatic byes as one of the top five-ranked teams in the Concacaf Ranking Index as of the cutoff date. They’ll be joined by Jamaica, and the winners of these three home-and-away playoffs in June:
Saint Kitts and Nevis vs. Montserrat
Nicaragua vs. Canada
Dominican Republic vs. Curacao
After that, Concacaf World Cup Qualifying is pretty simple: All eight teams in The Octagonal will play each other home-and-away, for a total of 14 matches per team. The top three get into the 2022 World Cup, the fourth-place team will enter a playoff with a team from another confederation, and everyone else gets left home.
So this isn’t a confederation championship, or for the World Cup. Why should I care?
Because you love arbitrary international competitive football! Because Concacaf wants you to care!
But if they want to make this thing mean something, future editions of this event should give the winner something of value. Either a spot in the semifinals of the Gold Cup, or an extra point in The Octagonal for World Cup Qualifying, or ... you know, something.
While the Nations League is likely better for the smaller federations of the western hemisphere that will now have more competitive matches, it’s probably bad for the two best teams of the USA and Mexico. Beating up on minnows isn’t a great way to get better, and it will be tough to get the best American players in Europe to come over and curb stomp a Caribbean country with more tourists than people on an average day.
But we might get a USA vs. Mexico Final, and then another one in Las Vegas at the end of the Gold Cup in August. Concacaf might not be the best, but The Yanks vs. El Tri is still one of the best sporting rivalries on Planet Earth. So there’s a possibility something good comes out of this.