By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 30, 2022) US Soccer Players – The USMNT will play games that matter this month with the start of the Concacaf Nations League. The tournament, now in its second edition, will culminate next summer. This June is the start of the league phase, continuing during the March 2023 international window.
For the United States and other World Cup-bound teams, the Nations League means competitive games along with friendlies as the team readies itself for the first World Cup not held over the summer. Given what we don’t know about a World Cup that begins during the club season, we also don’t know what the best type of preparation is for the finals. Concacaf offers competitive games at the same time as European nations are also participating in UEFA’s Nations League.
For the Americans, placed in League A – group D with Grenada (whom they will face on June 10) and El Salvador (on June 14), the Nations League is relatively straightforward. They’ll be looking to avoid upsets, something that has increased in frequency around the world over the past few years.
Here are five things to watch for as the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League begins.
A pre-World Cup test run
The United States, Mexico, and Canada will use the Nations League as a chance to test players and tactics ahead of November’s World Cup. The three Concacaf reps will need to make June matter heading into Qatar. It’s more complicated for Costa Rica, playing their Nations League games on June 2 and 5 before heading to Qatar for a June 14 date with New Zealand for a spot in the World Cup.
Canada is in the midst of a Golden Generation, headlined by former Vancouver Whitecaps star Alfonso Davies, who are coming off a great World Cup Qualifying campaign. Mexico, meanwhile, is traditionally a formidable side but has struggled at times over the past year to get its footing right. Costa Rica is in a position to make a point about the strength of Concacaf by taking the fourth World Cup spot.
All of them are using this window to figure out what first team means. By his own admission, Berhalter will use these games to test players and tactics. It’s worth watching because any player who grabs the spotlight at the Nations League could very well make an impression come the fall.
Big games on the schedule
There are a few games worth your time, even at this early stage of the tournament and two of them may end up being highlights. The June 13 group C game between Canada and Honduras is an interesting one. Honduras last defeated Canada in 2016 during World Cup Qualifying. Since then, Canada has managed a win and three days. The 2-0 victory for Canada came this past January during World Cup Qualifying.
On the 14, the group A game featuring Jamaica versus Mexico is also a must-watch based on the recent past. The Reggae Boyz defeated Mexico 1-0 at the 2017 Gold Cup semifinals, one of the biggest upsets that tournament has ever seen.
Costa Rica may have its mind elsewhere
For the Ticos, the Nations League is the buildup for that World Cup Playoff in Qatar against New Zealand. The winner will punch their ticket for Qatar 2022. Will Costa Rica qualify for the World Cup after a few years of subpar performances?
That’s the bigger question some are asking over the coming weeks rather than whether or not Costa Rica can win group B. This isn’t the Costa Rica that looked like a regional powerhouse nearly a decade ago and turned heads in 2014 by reaching the World Cup quarterfinals that year. Instead, this is a team that has had issues finding consistency. It’s worth the reminder that last June they took Mexico to penalties in the Nations League semifinals before eventually finishing 4th.
Costa Rica plays Panama on June 2 and Martinique three days later. There’s a break before the trip to Qatar, giving them time to regroup and figure out what might work against the top team in Oceania.
Players to watch for following injuries
There are lots of USMNT players to watch for, but the two most may be interesting in seeing again are Brenden Aaronson and Westin McKennie. Both were injured earlier this year and had to miss the last Octagonal window, so their comebacks are much-anticipated.
This international window will also feature the return of Davies to the Canada roster for the first time in seven months. Named Concacaf’s Player of the Year, the 21-year-old missed Canada’s last six games after developing myocarditis, a mild heart condition, following a bout with COVID-19.
What about League B and C?
The Nations League has three tiers. While the US and the region’s top teams are in League A, there are two more rungs under that worth paying attention to in the coming weeks. The CNL functions like domestic competitions in Europe with promotion and relegation.
League B is notable for having Trinidad & Tobago in group C, the big favorite to earn promotion. That’s not all. The CNL will again serve as the qualifier for the 2023 Gold Cup. Following the group stage, the League A group winners and runners-up (eight teams) and the League B group winners (four teams) will qualify for the Gold Cup.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
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Photo by Martin Rickett – PA Wire via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com