The inaugural Concacaf Nations League champion will be crowned on Sunday night, as the U.S. and Mexico face off from Denver. Prior to their game, Costa Rica and Honduras will contest the third place match. With World Cup qualifying on the horizon, all four teams still have everything to play for beyond lifting a trophy. (For the tactical preview I did on the U.S. vs Mexico match, click here.) Creating a good run of form off of tonight's matches will determine the momentum countries have for qualifying. With that in mind, here are my storylines for each team ahead of their respective matches:
The Americans struggled to break down a compact Honduran defense in their semifinal match, and while Mexico will play much more open, Honduras plays a similar style to most Concacaf teams. The U.S. needs to show their midfield is capable of breaking a team down through possession. If they can do it against Mexico, they can do it against anyone.
Coach Gregg Berhalter has another big task as he fills out his team sheet. His midfield was the weakest link on Thursday, so it will be interesting to see if he makes adjustments to compensate for that. Defensive midfielder Tyler Adams was cleared to play yesterday, providing Berhalter with a strong option to replace Jackson Yueill in the starting lineup.
The next lineup decision for Berhalter is who starts up top as striker. Josh Sargent started Thursday against Honduras, turning in an average performance. He had an incredible goal-line clearance in the first half which shows his willingness to help on defense, but he did not contribute much spark in the attack. Sargent's substitute replacement, Jordan Siebatcheu, provided a much stronger and lethal option in the box, culminating with his game-winning goal in the 89th minute. After the match, Berhalter said his staff felt a goal was coming and they made their subs in hopes of having more energy on the pitch, indicating they were not necessarily displeased with Sargent's performance. Still, Sargent has not had the best run of form for the U.S. recently, so it would not be surprising if Siebatcheu got the start, especially with how well he impacted the match on Thursday.
The big question for Mexico is can they find a goal? They were clearly the better team against Costa Rica, creating chance after chance with their quality passing. Despite their beautiful soccer, they could not put the game away and needed a heroic performance in the penalty shootout from goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa to escape to the final. While I think they should be the better team in Sunday's match, it will be interesting to see if their scoring woes continue.
Honduras did an exceptional job of dictating the pace of the game against the U.S., but they were unable to hold on for 90 minutes. Siebatcheu's goal came as a result of Honduras conceding space in midfield, allowing centerback John Brooks to step up in the vacated areas and play a ball in behind the defense. Costa Rica is a well organized team who will take advantage of any space Honduras gives them, so Honduras might rethink their defensive shape. Playing too deep will result in them being pulled apart, so I will be watching to see if they change anything for today's game to avoid that issue.
Against Mexico, Costa Rica sat back and absorbed pressure before relying on the counter-attack to create their scoring chances. Despite being reliant on the counter-attack throughout the match, the Ticos did show they were capable of stringing together meaningful possession through the midfield. Because they have the quality to dominate a game, I expect them to do so against Honduras. We should see much more possession soccer from the Costa Ricans, although they might continue to sit back and force Honduras to play on the front font, a style the Hondurans do not have much experience with. If that is the style Costa Rica goes with, they will be trying to beat Honduras at their own game. Regardless of the choice, it will be interesting to see the full extent of what Costa Rica is capable of.
I will be posting my thoughts on both games throughout the matches on my Twitter, @MillerMike123.