By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 8, 2023) US Soccer Players – In one week, the Concacaf Nations League semifinals kick off in Las Vegas. The winners of a Thursday doubleheader of Canada vs Panama and USMNT vs Mexico will face off in the championship final three days later.
For the continent’s three largest nations, the usual stakes of hardware and regional bragging rights are elevated this time around. With no qualifying campaign required, the three co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup have fewer fully competitive opportunities in this cycle. This is one, alongside the Gold Cup and the pan-American 2024 Copa America.
Here’s a few topics to consider ahead of the 2022-23 Nations League’s final weekend.
Does anything change for the USMNT?
BJ Callaghan has taken the helm from the departing Anthony Hudson, both of them with an interim tag, while new sporting director Matt Crocker leads the hiring process for the next permanent head coach. There’s been an emphasis on continuity given that Callaghan, like his predecessor, was a member of Gregg Berhalter’s staff during the 2022 cycle.
“We’re a team that has a very strong team chemistry, strong culture within our group,” said Walker Zimmerman in a media availability on Wednesday. “Not much has changed right now. We know the same principles, style of play, expectations, accountability, all those things are the same. And so I think that’s player-driven, to hold each other accountable to the standards that we’ve set over the past four years. BJ, he’s on top of it, he’s knowledgeable about what we want to do, how we’re going to go about these games.”
While leaving open the possibility of making game-by-game adjustments specifically catered to the opponent, Callaghan underlined his desire to continue the already-established philosophical framework.
“We have well-defined principles that we know. And our principles are what drives our behaviors,” he said last week. “If we pick a 4-3-3 shape, a 4-2-3-1 shape, a 5-2-3 shape, those are more match plans that I think are to put our players in the best opportunity to compete in that game… how one player knows what the other player’s thinking, because they’re reading the same situations, that’s how you look at good team chemistry on the field. So that’s what I mean by our defined style of play, is having consistent language, consistent principles and a consistent way of training throughout the week.”
What will be the tone and tempo of this edition of US vs Mexico?
After losing twice to El Tri in the summer of 2019, the USMNT has rattled off a five-game unbeaten streak against their border rivals, including dramatic wins in the 2021 Nations League and Gold Cup finals and four points from six in their Octagonal qualifying matches. Zimmerman pointed to a shift in the Yanks’ mindset following the 2019 setbacks.
“The more aggressive approach that we’ve probably had over the past two years, the ability to take more risks, the ability to press higher up the field, leave yourself a little bit more exposed. I think it’s created more opportunities for us to score,” said the Nashville SC center back. “And then certainly the mentality and that confidence of, now we’re in a little bit of momentum against them… we can, we are expected now, to put in a performance that should get us three points or a win.”
The positive results against El Tri have showcased some of the best moments of the Berhalter USMNT, with an emphasis on high pressing, aggression, and speed. Will the new boss keep faith in that, or mix in more careful or methodical moments with two games in four days at the end of a long European season?
Both Callaghan and Zimmerman sought to avoid over-hyping the occasion without underselling the emotional stakes.
“The USA-Mexico rivalry is well documented. We’ve all played, coached in these games and we have a healthy, healthy respect for Mexico,” said Callaghan. “At the same time, we know that this is a semifinal match. This is the opponent that’s in our way to winning another trophy. So we don’t prepare any differently because it’s Mexico. We understand the type of intensity that it’s going to take, the type of commitment that it’s going to take.”
How do the newcomers influence the USMNT attack?
There’s palpable anticipation around the potential debut of Folarin Balogun after his breakout campaign with Reims in France’s Ligue 1. His new teammates like what they’ve seen so far.
“Right off the bat just seemed like a great character, great person to have on our team, we’re really excited about him,” said Zimmerman. “Then on the training field, you see his quality. He’s got a great touch, he’s able to have some hold-up play, get runs in behind and obviously finish attacks. So first day, it was just great to meet him and great to see what he can do for us.”
Also in the squad is Taylor Booth, fresh off a strong season at FC Utrecht and reportedly attracting attention across Europe. He brings creativity and versatility to the USMNT and perhaps a different look from other options across the front five.
Even just on the training ground, the newer faces can raise the level for everyone else.
“Personally for me, it’s going to make me better, I’m going to make him better,” said striker Ricardo Pepi of Balogun. “So it’s a lot of competition in our spot.”
Is Canada finally ready to earn a trophy?
None of the four semifinalists want or can afford to look past their first opponents. That said, there’s already been plenty of conversation about whether Canada can assert itself as a member of the Concacaf elite this summer.
After decades of struggle, Canada announced its rise with a run to the semifinals at the 2021 Gold Cup. It built upon that by surging to the top of the table on the road to Qatar, in no small part by taking four points from a possible six against both Mexico and the USMNT. Les Rouges could be considered unlucky to have crashed out at the group stage in the World Cup. So optimism is surging around a program that hasn’t won a title since the 2000 Gold Cup.
“Our country’s been waiting for a trophy,” said head coach John Herdman on Wednesday. “When we finished top of Concacaf [in the Octagonal], you don’t have that trophy celebration for World Cup qualifying, I think going to the World Cup was the trophy. But these players have certainly earned the right to be two games away…. So for some of these players, this is groundbreaking.”
Herdman has gathered a strong squad headlined by European-based standouts Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, and Stephen Eustáquio. Like Berhalter, the coach has crafted a sturdy locker-room culture that considers itself a brotherhood and has embraced tactical versatility. With the ’26 World Cup representing every bit as much of a watershed for Canada as for the United States, it’s a group that wants to make a big step forward on a major stage.
That includes a desire to show the USMNT that they too are a force to be reckoned with.
“You cannot underestimate Panama. That’s an aggressive, hungry team. There’s a little bit of bad blood there from some of our previous matches. We know that that’s a big test, and we’ve got that target on our back going into a game like that,” said Herdman. “But if you were to say, we’d love to play the US in the final. I mean, that would be just an amazing experience. We know that they’re qualitatively the best team on paper in Concacaf.… Being the cousin just up the road, that’s the game everyone wants. Everyone wants to play a final against the US in the US.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- “It’s always going to be bigger than the individual”: Takeaways from USMNT’s Nations League roster release
- Takeaways from the United States’ opening matches at U-20 World Cup
- United States aims for a new level at U-20 World Cup
- Charlie Davies on his new role at CBS Sports Golazo Network and more
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com