After a year-long postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic, the CONCACAF Nations League final kicks off this week, and there are many storylines to watch out for before the semifinals on Thursday and Sunday’s finals in Denver.
The United States – with Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest, and Giovanni Reyna – will have to overcome the increasingly difficult Honduras in order to possibly play a championship game with Mexico. “El Tri” are without Raul Jimenezbut they still boast Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona as they prepare for a veteran-laden Costa Rican crew that is missing Keylor Navas.
ESPN’s Gus Elvin and Eric Gomez explain the main storylines and what to look for before the action unfolds.
Jump to: Who is Brooks’ Best Partner at CB? | will La Pantera Strike for Honduras? | Can Mexico leave it to Lozano? | El Tri‘s backline a problem? | Ticos“Veterans bringing a case?
1. Can the hyped stars of the USA put it together into meaningful games?
Before the 2-1 defeat against Switzerland on Sunday, the USMNT had set a 5-0-1 record in the last six games and outdid their opponents by a one-sided 26-4 lead. While many of these performances and scores were conspicuous, it should be noted that these results were against lower ranked opponents such as Trinidad and Tobago (103rd in FIFA rankings) and Panama (78th), or against younger, more experimental teams from such as Wales and Costa Rica.
There is no doubt about the talent pool or the future of the USMNT – the US will likely put together a team made up almost entirely of players who will play against Honduras in Europe’s Big Five on Thursday – but it is important to remember that Gregg Berhalter’s team holders have not played a significant game against top opponents since their 2-1 loss to Mexico in the 2019 Gold Cup final. How long ago was that? Well, Giovanni Reyna has not yet made a debut in the senior national team for Borussia Dortmund, Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah was still an English youth international, and Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley the finals began at Soldier Field.
All of this is not to say that the USMNT is unwilling to take the next step and prove its credentials against Honduras and possibly Mexico in Sunday’s final this week. More is to say we have to see it first, as this week’s games are sure to be more challenging and serve as a much better gauge of national team progress than the burned-out friendlies the US have had over the past 18 years Months. The fact that the US, albeit without Pulisic and Tyler AdamsHe fell a little to the ground on Sunday against a top opponent in Switzerland in 13th place, and also showed that this team still has a few questions to answer.
And although Honduras is not Switzerland, they can still prove to be a tenacious team, led by the timeless with a sturdy back line Maynor Figueroa, and exciting young attackers based in Europe Anthony Lozano and Alberth Elis, have the potential to provide a legitimate test for the United States.
It is now time for the US to show that their recent results were no accident and that they can consistently reproduce these types of performances against better opponents and in a tournament format. With the likes of Pulisic, Dest, Weston McKennie and so many more newly minted silver medalists at the highest levels of club play, there is no reason to believe that the USMNT could not stand up to this opportunity against tougher competition. They can start proving this Thursday evening in Denver by setting the first of hopefully many markers with a win against Honduras. – Gus Elvin
Herculez Gomez says he couldn’t imagine Christian Pulisic finding a better position at a big club if he left Chelsea.
2. Who will start in central defense alongside Brooks?
John Brooks is an automatic starter in the center-back for the USMNT when he is fit, but who will be his immediate and long-term partner in the center-back remains to be seen. Under Gregg Berhalter, Aaron Long got the most reps in this role, but with the New York Red Bulls veteran sidelined with an Achilles tendon injury, Berhalter will have to look elsewhere. Bavaria Munich Chris Richards, who impressed on loan at Hoffenheim and is the long-term answer to this question for many due to his athleticism and passing ability, is also not available for this tournament due to injury.
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That leaves Matt Miazgawho spent another season on loan from Chelsea and was a regular at Belgian club Anderlecht, Mark McKenzie, who impressed at Genk after joining them from the Philadelphia Union in January, and Tim Reamwho hardly played in the Premier League with relegated Fulham. With Ream now 33 years old and largely out of action, the right-hand role alongside Brooks will likely go to Miazga and McKenzie, who both had strong seasons in Belgium’s top division.
The 25-year-old Miazga enjoyed what is probably his best season in Europe, helping Anderlecht to concede the second fewest goals in the league and growing under the coaching guardianship of former Manchester City star Vincent Company. Meanwhile, McKenzie has acclimatized very well in his first season in Europe, ending the season with a spot on the league’s team of the week for the last two weeks of the season. Berhalter is faced with a difficult decision.
While Miazga has more experience both in Europe and internationally (21 internationals), McKenzie did not look out of place in his third international match against Switzerland on Sunday. Given that McKenzie is more mobile than Miazga and a better ball-playing center-back, he could be the more natural fit alongside Brooks’ formidable and no-nonsense defender.
However, Berhalter could opt for the safer option and stick with Miazga, who has more of a dominant presence in the box and has previously worked with Brooks five times, including against Portugal, Brazil and England. The right center-back starting position remains one of the few available spots for the USMNT, and all eyes will be on whoever gets the nod on Thursday. – Elvin
3. Can Honduras give itself a chance to cause a stir?
While Honduras manager Fabian Coito has two dangerous attackers with the aforementioned Elis and Lozano, he won’t be interested in a USMNT squad with Pulisic, Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Joshua Sargent, Tim Weah and Jordan Siebatcheu to choose in attack. The simple fact is that the US is just a more talented and deeper team, which means Honduras must find ways to close the gap and neutralize the USMNT’s strengths in order to give itself a chance. Coito will also know that after the USA scored seven goals in Trinidad, six in El Salvador and Panama and four in Jamaica in their last games against CONCACAF opponents.
One way that Honduras may cause a stir is to pause the game by dealing tactical fouls and drawing. Traditionally, Honduras are masters of the dark arts within CONCACAF, with 38-year-old Figueroa as the ringleader behind them. The sturdy defender has a record 165 internationals for Los Catracos, and has made a name for himself in Honduras, England and now Major League Soccer with the Houston Dynamo as someone who plays the game physically and marginally. If Honduras is to keep the score low and have a chance to snap this up on the counterattack, Figueroa and the rest of the team need to be physical, dedicated and tactical about breaking up the game.
This defense-first strategy won’t be new to Honduras, which also count on their strikers to fall deep, get behind the ball and help in defense. It may not be fun football, but it could keep the USMNT from getting into a rhythm and give Honduras their best chance of moving into an unlikely final.
The goal of Coito and his men will likely be to keep that 0-0 for as long as possible because the longer they stay in the game, the more likely the US will start pressing and making a mistake or getting caught defensively become. Elis is the X-Factor for Honduras as his pace and tricks, which some of the US teams will remember well from his time at Dynamo before joining Portuguese team Boavista, make him the ultimate threat man on the counterattack. Honduras are big underdogs here, but with an experienced group and some history of competitive results against the US they are not without a chance, especially at La Pantera above. – Elvin
Herculez Gomez says Mexico and the Wolves must be vigilant if Raul Jimenez returns to football.
1. Who starts as El Tris striker injured with Jimenez?
As Raul Jimenez injured himself after a violent clash with Arsenal David Luiz Last November, manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino went through the difficult task of getting his production in El Tri‘s lineup. It is definitely not an easy task. Jimenez has led the offensive lately, scoring 11 goals in his last 16 games for Mexico.
It’s also the country’s only Premier League export and one of the few European-based stars in the player pool. So far, Jimenez’s production and role has been largely irreplaceable.
Club Americas Henry Martin, who most closely resembles the Wolverhampton Wanderers striker in position and height, has struggled to make a name for himself. Puebla striker Santiago Ormeno, who scored nine goals in the recent Guardianes 2021 season, is obviously not of interest to the Argentine manager. Alan Pulido and JJ Macias – the latter is currently training with the Olympic team – seem to have drawn Martino’s attention neither in the senior nor in the U23 team.
Then there is Javier “Chicarito” Hernandezwho leads the MLS through the same number of games by seven goals. Although Martino said Chicharito remains a viable option for him, it’s hard to ignore the cold shoulder the former Manchester United striker has received from his national coach in recent months.
In Jimenez’s absence, Martino has retrofitted his offensive without a traditional striker bearing the burden. Naples’s Hirving Lozano is undoubtedly the target man in the storm, either as a false nine or off the wing. In the friendly against Iceland last week, Lozano came off the bench and handed over El Tri the 2-1 victory in just under half an hour with a brace. Fast players like Lozano or Diego Lainezwho can create in tight spaces and pull defenders out of their zones, seems like Martino’s bet against Costa Rica and beyond. – Eric Gomez
2. Can Mexico’s defenses be put to the test?
Similar to the USMNT, Mexico’s backline is at the center of the debate. For Mexico’s last five games, the most common center-back pairing has been that of Hector Moreno and Carlos Salcedo. Although Moreno’s experience is unrivaled (the 33-year-old has played over 100 caps and competed in three World Cups), his form has been questioned after two lackluster seasons with Qatari club Al-Gharafa.
El Tri He has been clean in only two of the last six games, but has recovered from a number of key mistakes against Iceland and in an earlier friendly against Costa Rica. Others who have joined Moreno and Salcedo in Mexico’s defensive rotation include: César Montes and Nestor Araujowho has just finished his third La Liga season for Celta Vigo, although none of them could convince Martino to rouse the Moreno-Salcedo couple.
Martino has also toyed with the idea of having three behind and slipped between Moreno and Salcedo in Ajax Amsterdam defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez. Another former Club America star, Alvarez, was still responsible for an own goal against Iceland. In later parts of the game he seemed instructed to go back to midfield so as not to overcrowd the defensive lines.
Mexico’s slightly slower central defender gets it against Costa Rica and the speed of Joel Campbell. However, it is far more fascinating to imagine what Martino will do when faced with the USMNT and its ability to cause problems with its speed and capabilities in advance. – Gomez
3. Is this Costa Rica’s last stand with the current generation?
With his time at Paris Saint-Germain and three Champions League medals from Real Madrid, Navas remains Costa Rica’s most famous player – but the 34-year-old goalkeeper will miss this tournament with an injury. Without the probably top player from CONCACAF, the Ticos will therefore have to rely on a bevy of other veterans to win the trophy.
A total of nine of the 23 players selected by trainer Ronald Gonzalez are over 30 years old. Four more of the current group will be 30 or older by the 2022 World Cup. Gonzalez is aware that the current generation is drawing to a close in the sun and to that end has replenished his roster with five players under the age of 23, including those of the Columbus Crew Luis Diaz.
The impending rise of teams like Canada and Jamaica, as well as the continued success of CONCACAF giants Mexico and the United States mean that Costa Rica has a tough road ahead of them if it is to qualify for a third straight World Cup and beyond. The first test for Costa Rica’s hybrid group will take place against Mexico and is likely to draw some conclusions as to whether they will continue to be a player in the region – or disappear in the next few years. – Gomez