By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 7, 2019) US Soccer Players – The October international window is interesting for the USMNT. The United States prepares to take on Cuba and Canada in a pair of games that feel like friendlies, but count for something thanks to the Nations League. As the team prepares for these games, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has to examine what the new competition means for his players, especially with 2022 World Cup Qualifying on the horizon.
In theory, competitive games are always better than friendlies, at least for fans. For Berhalter, new games that count means balancing a few things. Among them are testing new players and formations, injuries, and the MLS Cup Playoffs. For some teams, like Canada, the Nations League and FIFA rankings make these upcoming games crucial. For the US, this can still be a time for some experimentation. Of course, winning is always the objective. The Nations League counts, and the USMNT is looking to advance.
The USMNT, with a record of 8-1-3 this year, will face Canada on October 15 at BMO Field in Toronto, four days after the opener against Cuba at Audi Field in Washington, DC. Canada will already be in do-or-die mode, given the new Concacaf World Cup Qualifying format. As a result, the Nations League takes on greater importance for the United States in what could become a rivalry game. There are still some questions for this version of the USMNT. The Nations League will help this team gain both clarity and focus.
"This is competitive soccer. For us, it's playing away games and playing home games that leads to a result in a tournament format which is important," Berhalter told USSoccer.com. "World Cup Qualifying is an absolutely crucial event, and these games will help prepare us. Any time there is a trophy on the line and in the inaugural Nations League tournament, we want to put ourselves in a position to win."
Playing competitive matches going into qualifying is a good thing for the United States. The global push to replace friendlies with games that count is happening for a reason. There are only so many games with teams using all six subs and not overly upset with a loss that need to happen during a World Cup cycle.
In Europe, the Nations League experiment was a big success. Whether or not Concacaf follows that example is still in question. Concacaf doesn't have the depth of UEFA, meaning Mexico and the United States need to treat this competition like something that matters. The US and Mexico have written some of the most important chapters in the history of the region over the past 30 years. It was in 1991, at the inaugural Gold Cup, that the United States captured the trophy after defeating Mexico and Honduras in the semifinals and final, respectively. That stressed the importance of that competition.
In the recent European version, Portugal, the defending European champions, emerged on top of what turned out to be a competitive tournament. The final four teams, also including England, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, were a mix of traditional powers and emerging sides just a year after the 2018 World Cup. In April, the last FIFA rankings released before the semifinals, Portugal was #7. After winning the Nations League, Portugal rose to 5th and consolidated Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the game's best all-time players.
That gave the UEFA Nations League a purpose in its first edition. Concacaf can't match the star power of Europe, but a competitive environment can make these games count. Berhalter only had six months to prep for the Gold Cup. The Nations League will have a clearer picture of which players will be part of the team's starting lineup for qualifying. On the way, advancing to the Nations League finals is an opportunity for the USMNT.
Concacaf originally scheduled their final four for March, moving it to June in a press release a few weeks ago. That doesn't exactly stress the importance of the Nations League, but it might end up being better for all involved.
Unlike the Gold Cup, the Nations League at that point will only feature two games, a semifinal and potential final. Win those two games, and the USMNT will go up in the FIFA rankings and regain some regional respect. That would be an excellent way to go into World Cup Qualifying, starting less than a year from now.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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- The pressure on Christian Pulisic and Chelsea
- MLS in the global market
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