Just around the corner, the Concacaf Nations League tournament hits the group stage for the first installment of the tournament. After the qualifying stage that took place at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the 41 teams in the region have been split up into three leagues, with group play starting during next month's international break.
The championship round won't take place until next June, but there will be plenty to play for this fall in League A. With four groups of three countries, the top team from each group will move onto the semifinals while remaining in League A for the next installment of the tournament. The second-placed teams will also remain in League A, but the four third-place finishers will all be relegated into League B for the next edition of the Nations League.
With each team just playing four games, the margins will be tight, and a mistake or two could be the difference between making the semifinals and being relegated. Here's a look at each of the group in the top division of this year's Nations League.
As with any Concacaf men's competition, there are two clear favorites and then the rest of the field. Group A is led by the United States, managed by Gregg Berhalter. After missing out on the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. stayed stagnate for over a year, before bringing in Berhalter as the permanent manager in 2019. This year, there have been promising performances, worrying results in friendlies, and a decent Gold Cup showing ending with a 1-0 final defeat to Mexico.
Anything less than winning the group will be a massive disappointment for the Red, White, and Blue, who are in the process of cycling some older players out of the set up while bringing in a few fresh faces. Their stiffest competition in this group will come from Canada, who did well enough in this summer's Gold Cup group stage.
Manager John Herdman helped steer Canada through Nations League qualifying with ease, then led Canada to a second-place finish behind Mexico in their group at the 2019 Gold Cup. A 2-0 lead over Haiti in the quarterfinals had Canada on course for a rematch against Mexico, until the Haitians clawed their way back for a stunning 3-2 win. Canada has several young players worth noting, headlined by Bayern Munich winger and defender Alphonso Davies. But it just hasn't quite all clicked at once for the Canucks, who would do well to upset the USA.
Cuba makes up the final team in the group, and they're the likely candidates to be relegated after finishing this year's Gold Cup with three losses from three games, scoring zero goals while conceding 17.
This is another group that should be easily swept away by the kings of Concacaf. Right now, Mexico is by far the best team in the region, winning the 2019 Gold Cup under manager Tata Martino, despite a lengthy list of unavailable players. It wasn't always easy for El Tri, but the 1-0 win over the U.S. in the final made it clear who the top dog in the federation still is.
Panama is lurking just behind though, always a threat to cause an upset or two. The Central American side just missed out on a chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, but made up for it in 2017 by qualifying for Russia 2018, the first time the men's side had made a senior World Cup appearance. The highlight of that tournament was the scoring of a goal against England, while Los Canaleros lost all three of their games.
Panama lost a tight game to Jamaica at the Gold Cup this year in the quarterfinal round, after finishing second in their group behind the U.S. A second-place finish in this group would be a sufficient result for Panama, but Bermuda, led by Queens Park Rangers forward Nahki Wells, could challenge for the second spot as well. Bermuda won three of their four qualifying games to make it to Leauge A, and then just barely missed out on the knockout stage at the Gold Cup. While relegation to League B might be the likeliest outcome for Bermuda, a strong showing would continue to show an uptick for the side's future prospects.
Here's one group without a clear favorite in League A this year, with Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, and Martinique all candidates to finish in any of the three positions in the table. The Hondurans are the highest-ranked side in the group but are fresh off a fourth-place finish in their group at the Gold Cup. An opening defeat to Jamaica and a shocking 1-0 loss to Curaçao meant that the Central American side were eliminated from the Gold Cup before playing their final game.
Of course, in that final group stage game, all Honduras did was smash rivals El Salvador 4-0, preventing their neighbors from moving onto the quarterfinals of the competition. Similarily, Trinidad & Tobago also finished fourth in their group at the Gold Cup, taking a single point, in a draw against Guyana. The Soca Warriors will have a belief that they can grab the top spot in the group, but both sides will have to be wary of Martinique.
The Caribbean island team, not even a member of FIFA due to their oversight by France, waltzed through the Nations League qualifying stage, one of three teams to win all four games. That didn't quite translate to success at the Gold Cup, as Les Matinino were unable to overcome a 4-0 loss to Canada. But a win over Cuba and a narrow 3-2 loss to Mexico is proof that Group C is anyone's to claim or be relegated from.
Costa Rica nearly knocked out Mexico at this summer's Gold Cup, falling in penalties in the quarterfinals to the eventual champions. That matchup was probably a game earlier than Costa Rica was hoping for, as Los Ticos finished second in their group after losing to Haiti. After a stunning quarterfinal run at the 2014 World Cup, the Central Americans haven't been able to build much upon that success. At last year's World Cup, Costa Rica finished last in their group and never seemed to find their top gear at the Gold Cup.
Still, they are the favorites to advance to the semifinals from Group D. Their biggest challenge will be the same Haiti side that defeated them at the Gold Cup. Les Grenadiers finished top in the Nations League qualifying, winning all four games by a margin of 19 goals scored to two goals conceded. That formed carried on to the Gold Cup, where Haiti won all three group stage games, had a huge comeback against Canada in the quarterfinals, and narrowly lost out to Mexico in the semifinals, losing 1-0 to an extra-time penalty.
Haiti topping their group wouldn't be much of a surprise if they can continue to play at a high level. Curaçao might seem like the fodder to make up the rest of the group, but the islanders could use their showing at the Gold Cup to be a darkhorse contender for the semifinals. Curaçao eeked into the Gold Cup quarterfinals, after a stoppage-time goal earned them a draw in their group finale against Jamaica, benefitting from Honduras' win over El Salvador.
A narrow 1-0 loss to the US in the quarterfinals shows that Group D might be one of the more dramatic groups from League A this year.