5️⃣ What to watch in October's Concacaf Nations League matches
Why the US & Mexico may be sweating this month's results, familiar faces in League B + much more!
And we’re back! Just a month after the last international window, it’s time for another meeting of nations in the Concacaf Nations League.
Finally off of the same cycle as the Gold Cup, the winner of this tournament will be decided in March, and in all likelihood the winner is yet to start playing in the tournament.
There is drama from top to bottom this month, though, with places in next summer’s Copa América up for grabs in League A, games that may determine promotion taking place in League B and a few World Cup qualification ramifications in League C.
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Before we get started, here’s the full slate:
Now let’s look at five things - one from each league plus two bonus thoughts - to look out for during this window:
OK, who’s advancing out of League A?
The biggest question around the Nations League continues to be which teams from League A will play on and potentially set themselves up to reach the 2024 Copa América.
The top two teams from each group will go into home-and-home playoff series against the four highest-ranked Concacaf teams (Mexico, United States, Canada and Costa Rica) in November. The losers of those ties will get another chance in March to clinch one of the confederation’s six Copa América berths while the winners will play the Nations League Final Four.
Here’s how they currently sit:
Group A is somewhat clear: The only team to win both its September matches, Trinidad and Tobago controls its own destiny and needs at least a point against Guatemala to go into the last day at Curacao feeling confident. Meanwhile, Curacao and El Salvador are all but eliminated after getting no points in the first two matches. El Salvador switched gears with a new manager, while Curacao still is being led by interim boss Dean Gorré.
Meanwhile, pre-tournament favorite Panama needs a win at Curacao and then closes at home with a crucial game at Guatemala (yes, again) that may decide which Central American team goes through.
In Group B, the picture is muddier. Everyone is still in the hunt, even if it feels like Suriname and Grenada, who split a point with each other, are long shots for promotion. They still could play spoiler, starting with Haiti’s trip to Paramaribo on Thursday.
While Cuba should be in pole position for a spot in November’s Copa América playoff, the inability to host Honduras on home soil, plus problems with player availability has hampered their chances. That, plus a daunting return trip to Tegucigalpa could see the Lions of the Caribbean get jumped, either by Honduras itself or by a Haiti team prepping for the visit to Suriname and then a showdown with Jamaica at a neutral site in Trinidad and Tobago.
Will the team to avoid actually become avoidable?
Did I get too cute with the title? This is basically the Panama bullet.
Panama currently occupies second in Group A of League A. With Trinidad and Tobago in control of its own destiny, hosting Guatemala and traveling to meet Curacao, it’s possible the Soca Warriors lock up that top spot. That would create some interesting matchups in November, perhaps more interesting than Concacaf would’ve liked.
The November matches are set up to benefit the best-ranked teams in the region and give them the best matchup, so the top team, either the U.S. or Mexico, would play the worst-ranked group runner-up.1
Yet, Panama easily could finish in second place in its group, setting up a showdown between the No. 2 team in the rankings and a Panama team that has climbed to No. 4 in the rankings.
In the other group, Jamaica is the favorite, and opening with a trip to Grenada tonight will give the Reggae Boyz a chance to put a vicegrip on that top spot.
Mexico or the U.S. would certainly rather play Cuba, Honduras or Haiti in the November round of matches than Panama.
If Trinidad and Tobago wins the group, their surge in form would have to be respected. But remember this is a team that is in League A only because it was awarded the place after Nicaragua’s rule violations were uncovered.
So, if T&T goes on to win its group, Canada or Costa Rica might end up with a much more favorable matchup than it expected when the bracket was drawn up.
When you try to both put your thumb on the scale but also leave some things up to sporting results, things will get messy. The format has been an issue from the moment it was announced, with actual competition only showing just how strange some of the choices were.
The forgiving nature may be the saving grace for the confederation. If a team like Panama or even a power like the U.S. or Mexico misses out on the Copa América, leaders can point out they had multiple chances to win games and qualify. But next time something like this pops up, perhaps a less intricate format would spare everyone a few headaches.
You again? League B slate brings doubleheaders
Without a doubt, the most interesting thing in League B is that every team will play one opponent twice in this window.
This should create some interesting scenes: Will teams end up traveling on the same planes? Will frustrations from tackles or goal celebrations or trash talk carry over past the first 90 minutes and into the second?
Puerto Rico and Guyana won’t even need to travel, with each team opting to contest their home game at the neutral site of Basseterre in St. Kitts and Nevis. It’s the most interesting matchup for me, location aside. These two teams are clearly a cut above the other two squads in the group, with Puerto Rico beating the Bahamas 6-1 and then putting a 5-0 scoreline on Antigua and Barbuda.
Guyana thumped Antigua and Barbuda 5-1 before needing a rally to get past the Bahamas, 3-2.
Yet, Guyana has rising star Omari Glasgow, whose four goals put him one off the Nations League lead. Puerto Rico will be tested by both an individual player and a team attack unlike anything it has seen so far in League B. To cope, Puerto Rico has brought in a range of defenders, from veteran Zarek Valentin to 16-year-old Eitan Solomiany.
Elsewhere, Saint Lucia and Guadeloupe also will likely decide their group after both opened with a pair of victories in Group A.
Nicaragua looks to flex its muscle against Montserrat as the Dominican Republic tries to keep pace in Group B.
And with Group C wide open, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines can stake its claim to the top place and promotion with a pair of games against thus-far winless French Guiana.
Here’s hoping familiarity breeds a healthy level of contempt with teams going all out in both matches and finding reasons to go even harder in the second meetings. It’d make for some fun games next week.
Are there more shocks coming in League C?
Doesn’t it feel like some of the smallest teams in League C have been there - and at the bottom of the FIFA rankings - forever? Things may be changing, if the British Virgin Islands’ win over the Turks and Caicos Islands is anything to go by.
What would qualify as a shock? Anguilla winning a game, for one, something that looks tough with the Spinning Dolphins on the road for contests with Bonaire and Saint Martin, perfect through two games.
In Group B, next week’s match with the Cayman Islands hosting the U.S. Virgin Islands could bring a surprise, namely with the Cayman Islands not having secured a victory since 2019 when it beat…the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Dashing Eagle remains the favorite for me, but if the Caymans are going to find a victory, it may have to be in that contest.
Truthfully, the BVI doing it again and either knocking off Dominica or getting a road win over TCI to go along with its home victory feels like the most likely result that would classify as an upset.
That’s why they play the games and all that, but the teams currently leading the groups in League C look to have the inside track toward promotion.
Also, the top-ranked second-place team also is going up to League B, so teams will be eager to get every point possible even when there’s a clear favorite in the group.
Sounding a little pitchy
The Concacaf Nations League started to give teams more games and, ideally, to have those matches played at home. It seems that last month, however, the confederation started to crack down on teams whose venues, especially the pitch, are not up to the standard.
Puerto Rico and Guyana are playing both legs of their series, which may decide who wins promotion to League A, at a neutral site. Guyana was fined for the condition of the field at the National Track and Field Centre after a 3-2 win over the Bahamas.
No word on if the strobe light at that little bodega or whatever back there also merited punishment.
While I wasn’t able to confirm whether or not a fine was issued, French Guiana also had to move its match because of pitch conditions, playing St. Vincent and the Grenadines in Martinique rather than on the grass of the Stade Municipal Dr. Edmard Lama.
Overall, nine matches out of 33 this window will be played at neutral sites. Some of those, like Haiti moving its contest as unrest continues or Montserrat having to play away because of a lack of ferry service, are due to factors beyond the control of the soccer authorities.
Others come down to federations not doing enough to make sure local fans get to see their teams play competitive home matches.
(I don’t know which category you want to put Cuba having to pick a different site because it currently doesn’t have a facility to host night matches into.)
Ideally, the fines and being forced to move games serves as a wake-up call for federations to continue to keep their facilities at the level where they can safely host matches and everyone can enjoy a match unmarred by poor conditions.
There is some progress being made. Aruba will host a home match at the Guillermo P. Trinidad Stadium for the first time since March 2016 after putting new turf down.
All right, let’s Nations League! Be back in your inbox soon.
It’s really hard to say which one. The U.S. jumped Mexico in late September’s FIFA rankings but the Concacaf rankings are slightly different and haven’t been updated since the end of August. Rankings from the end of October, which will take this month’s friendly matches into account, will be used to determine November’s matchups.