With the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals set, we take a look at what each nation has to gain and lose in a tournament that has gone from a slew of glorified friendlies to a legitimate competition.
Like the shifting plates of Pangea 175 million years ago, CONCACAF’s landscape is changing. The typical powerhouses aren’t finding the “minnows” so easy to deal with, and in recent years, new giants have emerged and are challenging for the throne, which has been occupied mostly by the United States and Mexico. With this new changing landscape, small competitions that got little attention from the media, fans, and even the teams themselves have become significantly more important as teams vie for supremacy wherever they can get it.
Add the mounting pressure for CONCACAF to perform on the biggest stage, and each international game is carrying more weight than ever before. So, with that, let us set the table and create the context for why the Nations League went from a glorified friendly tournament to a trophy that the final four teams are so desperate to win.
Mexico has long been the team in CONCACAF that has had legitimate expectations to perform outside of the region. And while there was a wave of players moving from Mexico to some of the finest clubs in Europe, that pipeline has seemed to slow down as more dual-nationals have begun to choose the U.S. (and occasionally Canada). Add in the pressure of not winning the most recent Gold Cup, a poor showing in the World Cup, and Tata Martino leaving the program, and what you have left is an El Tri team whose momentum is sliding in the wrong direction.
Diego Cocca comes in and will want to make an impression on the federation and fans alike. The first real trophy up for grabs? The Nations League. And while qualifying for the semifinals was relatively uneventful for Mexico, a match against the U.S. will be a legitimate test for the team and show what type of form they’ll enter the Gold Cup in.
For El Tri, their semifinals matchup has ratcheted up the importance from about a six to a nine, and this early test could be a sign of how Cocca’s run in charge will be.
If you were to write a story about Gregg Berhalter’s time with the United States men’s national team, who would be the villain? Would it be Berhalter himself? Claudio Reyna? Or the players who showed an appropriate performance level but didn’t meet the somewhat unrealistic expectations set upon them? Trick question, there isn’t a main villain in this story.
Berhalter has made mistakes in the past and coached in a somewhat defensive way that led to boring results, but he did win a Gold Cup, Nations League, and qualify for the World Cup. Reyna shouldn’t have been involved at all, and using politics at a stage like the World Cup shows a bigger issue within sports for the country as a whole, but that is another story for a different person to tell.
Finally, we have the players. You can’t question their commitment, and it wasn’t like the team was performing much better or worse before Berhalter. They have been steadily improving, but haven’t quite found the best person to lead them both on and off the field — but then again who could lead a team through the constant circus and soap opera that’s been the USMNT over the last year?
As always, hope springs eternal for the USMNT, and a win in the Nations League finals will be another opportunity to continue its upwards trajectory and fulfill the potential that so many people have claimed it has.
With Anthony Hudson taking the interim helm, the optimism is somewhat muted as people await the appointment of a permanent manager, and right now, there is no clear direction for the federation.
Arguably the only team in CONCACAF that is exceeding expectations right now sits in a somewhat comfortable semifinal draw that could very well be a trap match. Panama my not be a perennial powerhouse, but it is an extremely scrappy side that refuses to go down easy. However, you have to think that Canada is heading into the match feeling that it has a real chance of getting through to the finals.
John Herdman has the team playing fearlessly and with a real swagger after a dominant window against Curaçao and Honduras. While the semis aren’t until June, that team cohesion and new formation that it has tried builds on the somewhat bruised confidence post-World Cup exit.
Off of the field, the team has been talking a lot about respect, and with labor relations still happening, winning some silverware is crucial to building the “giants” image that Cyle Larin coined after his brace against Honduras.
For Canada, losing the Nations League isn’t as devastating as it would be for the other nations, but winning would have the most significant impact, as it would solidify and give credibility to its revolution.
The underdog left in the competition, FIFA’s No. 58-ranked nation is no slouch. After cruising through its group with eight goals scored and none allowed — including two convincing victories over a tough Costa Rica side — Panama will look to shock the region to win its first piece of hardware since the 2009 Copa Centroamericana.
After a hot start to the 2022 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, Panama feels like it missed out on an opportunity to feature in its second straight Mundial after making the trip to Russia in 2018. The nation has a lot to prove, and despite what the odds say, don’t sleep on Panama.