By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 9, 2019) US Soccer Players - Concacaf nations traditionally are not strong. That is no secret. Every four years, the world gets a reminder of the relative strength of the confederation. Only two Concacaf teams have reached a World Cup quarterfinal in the last eight World Cups. A Concacaf nation has never won the World Cup, and the prospects of that happening are seemingly slim.
Why Concacaf collectively is so far behind the rest of the world is up for debate. Some point to the lack of parity in the region. A significant gap exists between the haves and the have-nots. Others will say that more Concacaf players must make their way to Europe and compete at the highest level to raise the level of play back home.
It's a tough scenario. Whether or not the confederation even has a chance of catching up is an issue. That comes up every time someone suggests the Concacaf elite join CONMEBOL. Concacaf has no choice but to try to better the region. It's part of their mandate. The latest step towards that goal got started in earnest last month. The top countries join the party later this week.
The Concacaf Nations League will see the likes of Mexico and the USMNT begin league play. For Mexico, the tournament represents a chance to help opponents build up their strength. The tournament may seem like a walkover and a waste of international breaks. While the games may not be that competitive, it will feature meaningful matches against teams that are gunning for respect and a chance to test their mettle against the best.
Mexico needs to improve, as does every nation in Concacaf. This may not be the best method to improve. Playing in what could be walkover games lessens making them count. However, it's better than meaningless cash-grab friendlies that do nothing but please crowds.
The Nations League for Mexico begins at Bermuda on Friday and home to Panama on Tuesday. Those are opponents who are not in Mexico's class, of course. They'll still pose their own form of challenges over the next week.
Playing in Bermuda will represent something different. It's a competitive road Concacaf game. Mexico last played away with points on the line in Concacaf on October 10, 2017, when they visited Honduras in the final game of the World Cup qualifying. Mexico lost 3-2 and finished the Hexagonal with a 2-1-2 road record. In the previous stage, Mexico went 3-0-0 on the road, winning at Canada, Honduras, and El Salvador.
In 2014, though, Mexico went 1-2-2 in the Hexagonal and, combined with a poor home showing, struggled just to reach the World Cup. Mexico finished fourth in the Hexagonal and needed to beat New Zealand in a two-leg series just to get to the World Cup. In the previous stage of that qualification process, Mexico had also gone 3-0-0, winning at Guyana, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. Playing on the road in CONCACAF is tricky. It's also the only way to get better at winning away.
Oddly enough, in Mexico's Nations League group the road teams have had great success. Panama and Bermuda played each other twice in September, once in Hamilton and once in Panama City. Panama won at Bermuda National Stadium by 4-1 while Bermuda won by 2-0 at Estadio Rommel Fernandez. So both teams have shown the ability to play strong on the road. The Bermuda win at Panama also shows that the games should be competitive, no matter the circumstances.
Competitive games are important. The calendar does not offer the opportunity to compete in many of them. Since the end of the 2018 World Cup, Mexico has had just the Gold Cup to compete in. Without the Nations League, Mexico's next competitive match would likely have been in late 2020 with the start of World Cup qualification. Mexico is no longer an invited team in South America's Copa America. FIFA did away with the Confederations Cup. That would have been a lot of idle time and wasted opportunity to continue building as a team.
When trying to get to the next level and develop new players in the process, having more competitive games makes a difference. Performing in friendlies is one thing. Friendlies are not pressure-filled matches that can make the difference between teams advancing in a tournament or going home early. Only one team advances to June's finals.
Advancement to the semifinals will also help teams compete in high-stakes games. That simply doesn't come along often enough, especially now. Any game that has anything important attached to it is better than a friendly, at least the kinds of friendlies Mexico plays. If it helps give the rest of Concacafimportant games to compete in, the better off all nations in the region are because of it.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Graphic courtesy of Concacaf