The U.S. and Mexico play in the group phase of the first Nations League soccer tournament Friday, which immediately begs a question: what is the Nations League soccer tournament?
The answer isn’t simple.
Nations League is a regional event open to the 41 soccer-playing countries in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. And while the results won’t decide which six teams will play in next year’s World Cup qualifiers, they will have a bearing on the FIFA rankings, which will determine the six teams in the qualifying field.
Mexico and the U.S. are ranked 1-2 in CONCACAF and all but certain to advance. But the Nations League could have a profound effect on countries such as Canada, Curacao and Panama, who are just outside the top six. Also at stake are invitations to the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, with the top two teams from each of the four three-nation groups earning invitations.
The tournament was concocted by CONCACAF primarily to assure lesser countries such as Canada and Cuba, the two teams in the Americans’ group, play a regular schedule of meaningful games.
Cuba, the U.S. opponent Friday at Audi Field in Washington D.C., played just 10 games from 2016-2018, according to FIFA while Canada, which will play host to the Americans on Tuesday in Toronto, played only three times in 2018.
“We always want to test ourselves against top opponents. So the fact that we have the U.S. is nice,” said LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who was called up by Canada. “We haven’t really gotten the respect that we deserve yet. And that’s fair. You need to beat top-tier opponents in order to get that. So the fact that we’re in the group with the U.S. is good.
“We need this for CONCACAF. It gives us more opportunity to play more games.”
But the tournament is unlikely to help the U.S. or Mexico, which opens group play Friday at Bermuda and plays Panama at home Tuesday. Last fall, when it didn’t have Nations League obligations, the U.S. played high-profile, high-revenue friendlies against Colombia, Peru, England and Italy, all top 20 teams. Mexico played Chile, Costa Rica and Argentina twice, with only Costa Rica ranking outside the top 20.
Now those games have been replaced by dates with the likes of Cuba and Bermuda.
“It’s a waste of time,” former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a recent interview with ESPN. “When you play just within your own system, you don’t have the big matches against European countries or South American countries in order to grow your program, in order to grow your players.”
The U.S., which hasn’t lost to either Cuba or Canada since 1985, will play both countries in the second round of group play next month; Mexico will do the same with Bermuda and Panama. Winning their respective groups will send both countries on to next June’s tournament semifinals as well as the 2021 Gold Cup, which the U.S. will host and where Mexico is the defending champion.
Europe played its own Nations League event last year with Portugal beating the Netherlands in the final. France and Croatia, which weeks earlier had played in the World Cup final, didn’t get out of group play.
That’s a lesson that’s not lost on the Americans.
“We don’t ever take a game lightly,” midfielder Christian Pulisic said. “We’re going to go in and treat [Cuba] like a tough opponent. We can’t take it lightly, or that’s when things will go wrong.”