By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 22, 2023) US Soccer Players – The USMNT resumes the defense of its 2021 Nations League title on Friday when it travels to Grenada for the third match in Group D play. A US group fresh off a World Cup is hoping to start the next cycle on a high note by backing up its Nations League win two years ago with another title, one that would naturally come at the expense of the top team in World Cup qualifying, Canada, and the Americans’ chief rival, Mexico. Trophies are nice. Bragging rights make them seem shinier.
Aside from the reduced capacity at Empower Field necessitated by the pandemic, 2021’s final was everything Concacaf’s leaders could have hoped for. A dramatic back-and-forth affair that saw several Americans step into the spotlight on the way to a 3-2 extra-time win served as a proof-of-concept moment for the tournament’s designers.
It’s worth noting that UEFA’s version of the Nations League, the origin of the format, took European teams out of play for potential friendlies during FIFA windows. The US and Mexico can’t get games against big European teams even if they wanted to in most cases. That changed the scope of international windows, with Concacaf using the Nations League to provide additional games that count.
Long term, Concacaf hopes to create a more competitive region with more nations that can appear, and achieve, on the international stage. The expansion of the World Cup field to 48 teams for the 2026 World Cup, with its six guaranteed spots for Concacaf and two more teams advancing to the intercontinental playoffs, puts pressure on the region to improve the quality of soccer beyond its top tier.
For that reason, it’s important to consider the entirety of the Nations League as more than the competition that the United States, Mexico, and Canada are participating in this week and next. Those three countries and nine others make up “League A” of the tournament, but there’s a League B and League C that will play matches over the international window as well.
Countries in the second and third-tier leagues are playing for the chance to move up, with promotion and relegation part of the Nations League setup. By putting all 41 Concacaf nations into the tournament and connecting three tiers from edition to edition, the confederation hopes to boost the competitive level of the vast majority of its member associations.
That was stressed by recently re-elected Concacaf president Victor Montagliani when the confederation announced Las Vegas’s Allegiant Stadium as the site for June’s semifinals and final. “The Concacaf Nations League has already transformed men’s national team football in our Confederation, providing a consistent calendar of official matches for all 41 of our Member Associations, and allowing their teams to grow and thrive on and off the pitch, and ultimately to strive to reach the next level,” he said in that press statement. “I am looking forward with great anticipation to the Finals of the second edition of this wonderful competition.”
Before the Nations League came along, the smaller nations in Concacaf suffered from a lack of games. Friendlies were hard to come by, and without Concacaf to organize matches, some nations would play as few as two or three games a calendar year. That meant good players who played for small countries weren’t getting the same international experiences. Improvement will be slow, but those national teams in the region can only benefit so much from regular competition.
Concacaf is moving ahead on expansion in several areas, including the Nations League. Starting with the next edition, League A will grow from 12 teams to 16, meaning no teams from League A will be relegated from the current competition. They’re also adding a quarterfinal knockout round. The Nations League will continue to be the qualifying tournament for the biannual Gold Cup, and with the United States set to host Copa America in 2024, the 2023-24 version will serve as a qualification competition for that tournament.
Two years ago, the United States found glory in the Nations League by beating its fiercest rival. The game lived up to its billing as a final. As the favorites playing for advancement from League A’s four groups enter the final round of games, the chance to lift what’s still a new trophy is already enough reason. The tournament’s future is clear.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Concacaf