The U.S. men’s soccer team will play its first game in the Concacaf Nations League on Friday, hosting Cuba in Washington (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1, UniMás, and TUDN).
If you’ve never heard of the competition, or if you’ve only noticed other teams playing in it, you aren’t alone. Here’s a look at how the Nations League works and why it matters.
What is the Nations League?
A tournament for Concacaf national teams — those in North and Central America and the Caribbean — that’s designed to replace friendly matches played between the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.
The competition is divided into three tiers: Leagues A, B, and C. The United States is in one of four groups in League A; each group has three teams each. League A has the six teams that made the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, plus teams that got there through a qualifying tournament.
Jamaica, captained by Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, did not qualify, so it is in League B. Blake was in net for the decisive 2-0 loss to El Salvador.
The League A group winners will advance to a semifinal round to be played in June. The top two teams in each group also will qualify for the 2021 Gold Cup. The third-place team in each group is relegated to League B for the next edition of the Nations League and will go into the second round of 2021 Gold Cup qualifying.
The scenarios for Leagues B and C are laid out at the bottom of this story.
Why did Concacaf create the competition?
For two main reasons.
First, it gives the region’s smaller teams meaningful games, and in some cases, games at all.
Countries such as the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Jamaica can schedule friendlies against big-time teams because they’re internationally recognized. And, the U.S. and Mexico can host them with big financial guarantees from ticket sales.
But for Concacaf’s smaller nations, it’s not so easy. Those that don’t qualify for a Gold Cup have to wait up to two years for the next Gold Cup or the start of World Cup qualifying.
Second, FIFA’s global rankings, which determine seeding in the World Cup draw, value official competitions more than friendlies. So, it’s not only good to improve your FIFA ranking but for all of Concacaf’s teams to improve theirs.
So, it makes sense?
Indeed it does. But it also means that a Nations League game against a lesser opponent counts more than a friendly against a European or South American power, even when those games are tougher tests.
It’s like college basketball conferences trying to improve their odds of getting at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. FIFA uses an ELO formula similar to what’s used in college sports.
There are also significant regional stakes in the FIFA rankings. Concacaf will seed the confederation’s top six teams in the FIFA rankings as of June 2020 directly into the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
What are the other teams in the group with the U.S.?
Cuba and Canada. The schedule is as follows:
Oct. 11: Home vs. Cuba at Audi Field, Washington, 7 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, UniMás, TUDN)
Oct. 15: Away vs. Canada at BMO Field, Toronto, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2, UniMás, TUDN)
Nov. 15: Home vs. Canada at Exploria Stadium, Orlando, 7 p.m. (ESPN2, UniMás, TUDN)
Nov. 19: vs. Cuba at Truman Bodden Stadium, George Town, Cayman Islands, 7:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, UniMás, TUDN)
Cuba’s national soccer stadium, Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana, is undergoing renovations so it cannot host games.
Have there been games already?
What are the U.S. team’s records against Cuba and Canada?
Against Cuba: 10-1-1. Cuba’s only win was in 1947. The teams’ last meeting was in Havana in 2016.
Against Canada: 14-8-11. Canada’s last win came in a World Cup qualifier in 1985, a result that propelled the nation to the 1986 World Cup, its only men’s World Cup appearance. The teams haven’t met since a 2016 friendly, haven’t met in Canada since a 2012 friendly, and haven’t met in a competitive game in Canada since a World Cup qualifier in 1997.
How can I watch the other games in the tournament?
English-language broadcast rights for all non-U.S. games are held by FloSports, an online streaming service. It’s easier to watch in Spanish, since Univision has those rights and puts a lot of games on its TV channels. It also streams many games on its website, though you might need TV provider authentication for some of them.
Are there any other benefits to playing Cuba and Canada instead of more-famous teams that I want to see the U.S. play?
Canada ought to be a better rivalry game than it has been, since Canada has some talent. There’s a core of MLS players led by Los Angeles FC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye, Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio, and the Montreal Impact’s Samuel Piette.
There’s Alphonso Davies, who Bayern Munich bought from the Vancouver Whitecaps last summer for $13.5 million., and former Union centerback Steven Vitória, who plays for Portuguese club Moreirense FC.
And, yes, there is a big benefit overall. Because the Nations League is an official competition, teams can cap-tie players in them, meaning those players pledge their allegiance to that national team for the rest of their careers.
This is not as simple as it sounds, as many American players have dual nationality.
For example, U.S. fans were nervous when Dutch-American right-back prospect Sergiño Dest declined a call-up for Friday’s game. After playing well for the U.S. at the Under-20 World Cup and for Dutch club Ajax in the UEFA Champions League, the Netherlands is recruiting him.
Dest played for the senior U.S. team in two friendlies this year, but as long as he hasn’t played in an official competition, he’s eligible for a one-time change of allegiance. He told Ajax’s website on Tuesday that he expects to pick a side next month.
Does Europe have a Nations League, too?
Yes. UEFA was the first continental confederation to launch a Nations League, beginning in September 2018. The games played a part in qualifying for the 2020 European Championship, and took the place of international friendlies (which affected the U.S.’ ability to play European teams).
Portugal won the inaugural tournament. The next one is scheduled to begin in September 2020.
How is Concacaf’s version set up?
The groups are laid out below. Click here for the latest standings.
The first-place team will qualify for the semifinals in June and qualify for the 2021 Gold Cup. The second-place team also will qualify for the 2021 Gold Cup. The third-place team will be relegated to League B and go into the second qualifying round for the 2021 Gold Cup.
The first-place team in each group will qualify for the 2021 Gold Cup. The second-place team will go into the first qualifying round for the 2021 Gold Cup. The fourth-place team will be relegated to League C.
One group has four teams, and the rest have three teams. The first-place team will be promoted to League B and go into the first qualifying round for the 2021 Gold Cup.