Four teams, one trophy, and one collective goal. The United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras converge on Denver for the inaugural Concacaf Nations League Final today and Sunday. The tournament marks the first set of competitive matches since 2019 due to COVID-19, and everyone is anxious to see how their teams will do with World Cup qualifiers looming on the horizon.
While the four countries are playing for the same trophy, winning Nations League is not the ultimate goal. More importantly than lifting a trophy is gaining valuable time together as a first team to prepare for World Cup qualifiers. The World Cup is why national teams exist, and the momentum from this tournament will go a long way towards determining who is playing in Qatar next year.
Because the World Cup is the ultimate goal, I will be previewing each of the four teams in the context of momentum for World Cup qualifying, in order from most likely to least likely to win this weekend.
Qualifiers to seven consecutive World Cups and winners of the past four of six Gold Cups, Mexico is the regional juggernaut. They expect to and often succeed in winning everything. There is no reason why they would be expecting anything different before Nations League, and no reason why they should not win. The only team likely to stop them is the U.S., but with so many new faces in the American camp, Mexico has the leg up. The important thing with Mexico is they are used to winning, which is something no one else in this tournament can claim.
The goal for Mexico coming out of Nations League is to have the momentum to comfortably qualify for another World Cup. If they win handily, they can strike fear in their regional neighbors ahead of qualifiers. Mexico has the potential to make everyone pencil in a loss on the schedule before the games even start. If they have their way this weekend, everyone will start competing for second best in the region. While other countries will just be happy to qualify, Mexico can prepare for more Concacaf dominance by adding another trophy this weekend.
The outlook on the U.S. team is fairly simple. They absolutely must make it back to the World Cup. Anything less is a catastrophe. There is no time for moral victories, even in a tournament that does not count towards qualifying. The U.S. needs to win Nations League to generate real momentum for Qatar. Gregg Berhalter finally has his first choice lineup available to him, and it is time to see who steps up and claims starting positions. There can be no more experimenting or growing into roles. Players need to produce or they will be passed over. The same goes for Berhalter. No matter his success, his seat will always be hot if the team is in danger of not qualifying. If there is any sign they are going in the wrong direction, I expect him to be fired.
Winning Nations League would be a huge psychological boost for the Americans as it would prove they can compete at the highest level in Concacaf. They need to show they are in the top echelon with Mexico so they can be confident handling any opponent in qualifying. While this team is incredibly talented, the stakes cannot be higher and we have yet to see how they handle pressure. Proving this weekend that they can handle it will reassure themselves and their anxious nation.
The Costa Ricans have several players in their thirties, along with some young players eager to prove themselves with their national team for the first time. The team is largely made up of players from the Costa Rican domestic league, which is respectable but below the quality of other teams in the tournament. This qualifying cycle is the changing of the guard as a previous generation ushers in a new one. The big question for Costa Rica is how ready the new generation is. If they can step up and produce meaningful minutes, Costa Rica could be a surprise this tournament and well on their way to qualifying for a third consecutive World Cup. If not, the old generation will be tasked with one more qualifying cycle and may lag behind the rest of the region.
For momentum heading towards World Cup qualifying, Costa Rica does not necessarily need to win at this tournament. They simply need to show that their next generation is capable of competing with the best in Concacaf sooner rather than later. Moral victories can go a long way towards building the confidence of a young team. The country has experience qualifying for World Cups, so the opportunity is there for the taking as the coaching staff will have the squad in a position to succeed if the players can step up.
Honduras missed the last World Cup, but they love to play spoiler (think Olympics if that's not too painful). With only two players over thirty, the squad should be young, hungry, and in their prime. The Hondurans are set up to make a strong push to Qatar and ruin the dreams of anyone who overlooks them. The big question around this team is if they can keep up with the talent gap. Most players are from the domestic Honduran league, the lowest in quality at the tournament. They can make up for the talent gap by playing hard, high-energy, scrappy soccer. While it may not be pretty, it has been a successful recipe for many Concacaf teams over the years who needed to make up a talent gap.
The level of intensity at Nations League will determine how well Honduras can do in qualifying. Like Costa Rica, they can be content with moral victories as long as they are cohesive as a team. Being on the same page is an important part of scrappy soccer, but if Honduras can figure it out they are well on their way back to the World Cup.
I am excited to be in Denver this week covering Nations League. Stay tuned for more articles and feel free to follow me on Twitter for updates as they happen @MillerMike123