By J Hutcherson (Jun 8, 2021) US Soccer Players – It’s easy enough to look at the squads fielded by the United States and Mexico to determine the value of the Nations League. Both opted for their best available players, with Mexico coach Tata Martino making some tough decisions but otherwise going with his take on first choice. That sent a clear message about prioritizing the first leg of the summer 2021 schedule, even if it came with the usual caveats.
With the Gold Cup scheduled to start in mid-July rather than mid-June, there were potential conflicts with Europe’s preseason and club qualifying for UEFA tournaments. Add in the congested pandemic schedule and the need for players to have at least some time off, and the Gold Cup became a problem the Nations League solved. As we were reminded during the broadcasts, World Cup qualifying looms and there’s no replicating games that count for first choice squads. They need to play them.
Focusing on the Nations League this summer changes the scope of the Gold Cup. It’s the confederation championship, after all, the equivalent of the Euros and Copa America. While the Confederations Cup once made that status clear, there’s no worldwide Nations League. UEFA made the point of the Nations League clear by design, a way to replace a given number of friendlies on the schedule. While questioning the value of friendlies is nothing new, what the Nations League introduced was a reevaluation of what’s meant by “games that count.” It’s still worth asking, especially down the leagues in Concacaf’s version.
With Concacaf pushing for more involvement from the Caribbean zone in the number of games those teams play and games that count against bigger clubs in the region, the first finals seemed like a foregone conclusion. Four of the five highest-ranked Concacaf clubs advanced. The odd team out was Jamaica, playing in League B and winning promotion to League A. Barring interesting seeding, the next edition of the Nations League should see the top four Concacaf teams in FIFA’s ranking advancing to the semifinals. Whatever margin of era exists isn’t enough to suggest real jeopardy in this region.
That asks the question for why this is a better system than friendlies or additional games required to reach the Gold Cup. With the changes coming to World Cup qualifying, it’s something Concacaf will need to answer. For the 2026 cycle, the expectation is that the entire North American zone won’t need to go through World Cup qualifying. Sure, they could all participate like Qatar is doing in UEFA qualifying to get games on the schedule. Those games can’t count, but it’s probably a better choice than scheduling friendlies.
We don’t know what the 2026 World Cup expansion cycle will look like. Moving from 32 teams with potentially three of those teams automatically qualifying as co-hosts is new territory across the board. Qualifying becomes easier for the regulars in theory, but how FIFA decides to design the opening round looms. Seeding may take on even more importance in an expanded World Cup. Compound those issues if FIFA’s exploration of holding the World Cup every other year ends with them trying it.
All of that puts pressure on non-World Cup summers. FIFA will eventually fill the old Confederations Cup spot with the revamped Club World Cup. That may seem like more theory, but minus the pandemic, the first edition would be starting sometime soon in the slot now taken by the rescheduled Euros and Copa America. What Concacaf would’ve done with the Gold Cup is now a problem for a future date, but it still looms.
For the Nations League, the original plan was that it ended this time last year. Moving it to the March 2021 window was a pandemic necessity that eventually meant moving it to June a year later than scheduled. That March date ended up making a lot of sense in yet another revamped soccer landscape. Concacaf has already scheduled the conclusion of the 2022-23 Nations League for the March window.
The big takeaway from Concacaf is that there wasn’t a reasonable way to obligate its top teams to field first-choice squads for both the Nations League and the Gold Cup. Like the countries involved already did, Concacaf had no choice but to prioritize. FIFA’s choices may have ended up pushing a decision on them, but it was abundantly clear that there’s not enough space for a Nations League and Gold Cup summer. Moving the next Nations League final to March increases the likelihood of the best players in the region playing for both trophies. If that brings more of what we’ve just seen, that’s a win for the region in adding games that count.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Logo courtesy of Concacaf