By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 31, 2021) US Soccer Players – The summer is back to being busy. With the pandemic halting the action last summer, confederation championships in Europe and South America move to 2021 along with the Gold Cup. Four Concacaf nations have it even busier, starting this week with the Nations League final four.
With the conclusion of that tournament delayed and then delayed again, it’s finally time to name a champion. The four group winners of Nations League A, the United States, Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica, also represent the four strongest teams in the region at the moment. In reality, this quartet has represented the best of Concacaf, at least if you use qualifying for the World Cup as a measure, for quite some time. They join Jamaica as the five teams that didn’t have to go through the early rounds of World Cup qualifying.
The Nations League final four takes place at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver. On Thursday, the USMNT plays Honduras followed by Mexico versus Costa Rica to set Sunday’s 3rd-place game and final. Modeled on the European original, Concacaf’s Nations League wants the same result. That’s using more international windows for competitive games to cut down on what many considered meaningless friendlies.
“We are excited to gather this group together as we compete to win the Nations League trophy,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter told USSoccer.com. “It’s been a great year for our player pool and the unprecedented successes of winning multiple league and cup championships. Our focus now becomes continuing this success with the National Team.”
Here are three things to watch for this week at the Nations League:
First big test for the USMNT’s European-based players
The USMNT begins playing games that count knowing that squad rotation is a necessity. Fortunately, the depth of this squad is getting better. That’s thanks to so many players excelling at the highest levels across Europe. That means coach Gregg Berhalter has put together one of the most competitive US squads in recent history for the finale of the Nations League. While this collection of players has done well this past season at club level, Berhalter’s job is to mold these individual talents into a winning team.
“When we step on the field, we compete to win these trophies,” Berhalter said. “We want guys that really understand what it means to win and value what it means to win, but also have an expectation that winning is what we’re looking for.”
Sunday’s loss at Switzerland is the start of a process. With the Nations League taking precedence for first choice players, Berhalter is laying down a challenge prior to World Cup qualifying. The USMNT will aim to create chemistry and see just how competitive this team can be going forward.
Mexico remains the challenge
There’s no downplaying the regional heavyweights. Mexico keeps that spot until another team takes it from them, which could start in the Nations League. El Tri enters every Concacaf competition as the favorite and the Nations League is no different.
Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s side has many familiar faces on it. While the roster is a mix of domestic-based players as well as European ones, there are also a few who play in MLS. Those include LA Galaxy midfielder Jonathan Do Santos and Sporting Kansas City striker Alan Pulido. Notably absent is the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who is having a breakout season at club level. LAFC’s Carlos Vela also isn’t in the squad.
No Chicharito may be a good thing for the US’s chances, but El Tri remains a side stacked with talent. Standouts like Napoli striker Hirving Lozano headline the type of talent that can turn a game and a tournament. Lozano subbed on in Mexico’s friendly against Iceland on Saturday and made the difference in the 2-1 win. The first Concacaf Nations League final may seem built for the latest edition of USA vs Mexico, but nothing is a foregone conclusion in this region. Setting the tone is important here.
How big is the chance for an upset?
If it’s a Concacaf tournament, seeing the USMNT playing Mexico advancing to the final is the expectation. That doesn’t downplay Costa Rica and Honduras. Both are fully capable of pulling off the upset, but there’s a limit to flattery. The FIFA Rankings are an indication. Mexico is 11th to the USA’s 20th. It’s a big gap between them and Costa Rica in 50th-place and Honduras ranked 67th. What that means on the field in Denver is up to Costa Rica and Honduras.
Costa Rica will feature FC Cincinnati midfielder Allan Cruz. Honduras has a younger squad spearheaded by striker Alberth Elis that’s hungry for more success. Elis moved from Houston to Boavista, becoming a regular with the Portuguese Primeira Liga club. Though it’s not the same level as some of the USMNT players in Europe this season, anybody from Concacaf showing that they belong in a lineup sends a clear message.
What this tournament means to the region is important. With UEFA already playing their second edition, the expectation is that the Nations League counts. That means opportunities for meaningful minutes and teams accepting that there’s more at stake than the Gold Cup and qualifiers. We’ll finally learn just how hard it is to make it to a Concacaf Nations League final later this week.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Americans in Europe during a special 2020-21 season
- MLS so far in 2021
- Keeping time in the era of VAR
- Playing at home in MLS and Concacaf
Image courtesy of Concacaf