👀 The Copa carrot at the end of League A, WCQ positioning & more: What to watch for in November's Concacaf Nations League games
There's extra spice in November's matches with a trip to Copa America on the line
Reporting from Austin
Every team wants to make the Concacaf Nations League Final Four, and the defending champion United States is certainly no exception.
But the added benefit for the winners of these November CNL series of qualifying for the 2024 Copa América provides an extra carrot for teams like the U.S. and Mexico.
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter agreed that, especially for the U.S. which will host the tournament in 2024 it’s an obligation for the Americans to secure one of six bids for Concacaf teams joining the South American championship.
“Of course we feel that responsibility. We want to win, win the series with Trinidad. We want to move into the Nations league semifinals and finals and we want to go to Copa América,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “I think this is part of this group’s path, and we don’t want it to be disrupted.”
In the not too distant past, Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S. were regularly invited to the Copa América, but other Concacaf nations would see it as a much more rare opportunity. In the more than 100-year history of the tournament, Honduras was invited once while Panama secured participation only in the 2016 Copa América Centenario.
“It’s a new tournament but with an extra incentive,” Panama manager Thomas Christiansen said Wednesday. “The goal is to get into the Copa América. It’s something special for us, since it’s not normal for this chance to come to us.”
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Everyone still in CNL League A at this stage is dreaming of playing in a tournament that conjures up the image of trying to stop Argentina with Messi, Brazil with Vinícius Júnior or other star names from the CONMEBOL region.
“We’ll always want to play against the best, to see where we’re at and compete and try to win those games,” U.S. midfielder Malik Tillman said. “You want to play the best players, obviously there are a few in this tournament, so that’s what we want to reach.”
For the U.S. to reach that goal, they’ll need to slip past Trinidad and Tobago, a series heavily influenced by a pair of past meetings: When the U.S. topped the Soca Warriors in 1989 to leap them and qualify for Italy 1990 and when Trinidad upset the U.S. in 2017 to keep the Americans from qualifying for Russia 2018.
Berhalter invited Paul Caligiuri, the goal scorer in that 1989 match, to speak to the current U.S. players and help them understand some of the program’s history. When Eve saw the images, he said “Paul’s trying to get one over on us again!” but noted that the nods to the past “are fantastic” and he enjoys the extra flavor the U.S.-Trinidad and Tobago matches have taken.
“Since 2018, I think they’ve been on a little vendetta, since we knocked them out of the World Cup and their pride was hurt. There was a lot of condemnation, a lot of changes made,” Soca Warriors manager Angus Eve told me Wednesday night. “We understand the magnitude of the game for them.”
Favorites not clear in other League A series
The U.S. goes into tonight’s and the series as a whole as the heavy favorite to advance. Even with attackers Christian Pulisic or Tim Weah off the roster because of injuries, Eve said it’s tough to poke holes in what the U.S. will put on the field.
“Pretty much, they’re stacked,” the manager said. “It’s very difficult to look at weaknesses in their squad. They’re ranked 11th in the world. That says a lot.
“There’s not much to look at that they don’t have going in their favor, but we’re going to come out here and put out a good fight.”
Mexico, also, will be the heavy favorite to get past Honduras, even though it starts with a tricky away trip.
The other two ties are much less clear-cut. Costa Rica switched managers but Gustavo Alfaro has had little time to remake the Ticos in his image. They’ll face a Panama team that has beaten their regional rival in the last three competitive meetings and for the moment holds the clear edge in the series.
“I think on the field it’s tough for a group who has been playing in one way changes overnight, but as the saying goes, ‘New manager, certain victory.’ We’ll see, and we hope it isn’t like that,” Christiansen said.
It’s hard to say if Canada’s manager is new, with the familiar face of Mauro Biello serving as interim, but the departure of John Herdman, combined with the friction between Canada players and the federation has a matchup between squads that just a few months ago seemed to be on different levels looking very even.
Canada cruised past Jamaica in early 2022 to clinch World Cup qualification, but the Reggae Boyz put together a better Gold Cup than Canada and feel ascendent, while Canada’s only match since that tournament was the friendly loss to Japan.
With the extra incentive of the Copa América, and the chance to lock up qualification for the summer rather than worrying about a one-off match in March, these should be intense matches with a slim margin for error.
What’s going on outside League A?
Actually, a lot! While the League A teams have moved into a new phase of the Nations League, it’s the finale of the groups for League B and League C.
One of the best promotion battles is in Group A of League B, where Guadeloupe and Saint Lucia both sit on nine points. The teams’ meetings against each other already are behind us, which could be bad news for other group mates Sint Maarten and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, with both teams incentivized to score as many goals as possible and earn promotion on goal difference. Guadeloupe currently holds a one-goal edge with a +6 GD.
Looking for a head-to-head decider? Goal difference also will play a role, as will Montserrat’s return to home soil hosting the Dominican Republic, but the DR and Nicaragua could play a match deciding who goes up from Group B on the final day.
In League C, Saint Martin is going to be promoted, either as a group winner or the best-ranked second place team, but the other two groups are much more muddled.
Aruba plays twice this window and needs one result to go up to League B, though with a 2-0-0 record thus far it will aim for wins against both the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. Speaking of League C…
Does any of this matter beyond promotion and relegation?
It does, at least a little. The cut-off for World Cup qualification pots is after this November window, so this is the last chance for teams to improve their seeding ahead of the start of the Road to North America.1
Critically, the bottom four teams in the region have to go through a round of matches against each other in March. I believe it is unlikely but not impossible for there to be one team leaping out of the bottom four.2
Anguilla, the last-ranked team, is stuck, and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ recent tumble in the rankings has them also slotted into the first round. Despite a strong surge, the British Virgin Islands also are stuck in the bottom four, but may be able to hop the Turks and Caicos Islands for hosting rights. TCI could still, potentially,
Both play BVI and TCI play Dominica in this window, with both of those matches are taking place at the A. O. Shirley Recreation Ground in the BVI. Will throngs of BVI fans show up to root on Dominica on November 20 chanting things like “Sink their rating!” or “Every point matters!” No, no they will not, but nerds will be watching with calculators in hand.
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There also is some jockeying for position ahead of a World Cup qualification cycle many feel is their best-ever chance to qualify. And why wouldn’t they? The U.S., Mexico and Canada have automatic bids to 2026 and the expanded field means there are more spots than ever.
Curacao is trying to jump past Haiti and land in Pot 1 to land in a less demanding World Cup qualification group, hastily scheduling a pair of friendly matches against El Salvador, who also would love to boost its status.
OK, that should give you a good idea of what to watch this month. Get in touch here or on social media if you see something crazy or join us in the Discord. Chat soon!
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