Group A of the inaugural Concacaf Nations League offers no shortage of intriguing storylines.
Canada are a team on the rise and will get the chance to prove their worth against the other perennial Concacaf power after having their shot at taking down Mexico at this summer’s Gold Cup. Cuba can salvage some pride after a disappointing tournament, while the U.S. have plenty of questions to answer in the aftermath of their runner-up finish.
The first edition of the tournament will undoubtedly be more important for Canada and Cuba in light of Concacaf’s new World Cup qualifying format, but it does offer a great opportunity for the U.S. to grow under Gregg Berhalter and go after bragging rights in the region following their loss to El Tri in the final. A home-and-home series between each team will result in the group winner advancing to the semifinals and the last-place finisher relegated to League B.
The Canucks are still kicking themselves after capitulating in a 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Haiti at the Gold Cup and have the most to gain in the group. Jonathan David stole the show by scoring six times to take home the Golden Boot award, and his side often looked a team ready to turn the corner. You could even make an argument that the 3-1 scoreline in their loss to Mexico flattered the victors, but their run came to a screeching halt when they let a 2-0 halftime lead slip away in knockout play.
The Canadians will be looking to gauge their progress when they take on the Yanks and prove they belong, but they will also need to produce impressive performances whenever they take the field over the next year to improve their ranking in the region. They currently sit in the eighth position, meaning they will need to move up two spots if they are to guarantee a spot in the Hexagonal round.
Lucas Cavallini has taken his game to new heights since joining Puebla in Liga MX in 2017 and was no slouch at the Gold Cup with five goals to his name. The 26-year-old has an impressive 10 goals over the last year, and Canada’s young defensive unit will need to develop quickly to aid Cavallini and their other offensive talents if they are to finish atop the group and advance to the semifinals in March.
The minnows of Group A put together an impressive qualifying run — three shutout wins that included an 11-0 thumping of Turks and Caicos — to punch their ticket to the 2019 Gold Cup. The big stage wasn’t so kind to Cuba, however, as they failed to find the back of the net in three losses in Group A while conceding a staggering 17 times.
The vast majority of the squad suit up in the Cuban National Football League, with a few exceptions plying their trade in nearby Concacaf nations. Luis Paradela of Guatemalan outfit Universidad SC is one to watch when they take the pitch this fall. Able to play at any position in attack, he propelled his side through qualifying with five goals. Cuba kick off their Nations League campaign with a trip to BMO Field on Saturday, September 7, before facing the Canucks just three days later at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex in the Cayman Islands. Their two matches against the U.S. come on October 11 and November 19, the final day of fixtures.
The Yanks enter the competition in October with an opening match against Cuba.
The biggest question ahead of the tournament is whether Berhalter will gather a full-strength squad to secure a trophy at all costs or use the set of fixtures as a chance to call in a host of younger, unproven players as part of his long-term vision. Perhaps the answer will be somewhere in the middle.
Their spot in the Hex is virtually secure thanks to the new format, but the U.S. should expect to be in the mix until the very end regardless of who’s called up given the depth of the player pool in comparison to the vast majority of Concacaf nations. Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent — who narrowly missed out on the Gold Cup roster — Lille’s Timothy Weah, Chris Richards of Bayern Munich, and Hannover’s Sebastian Soto are a few of the Europe-based youngsters who could see action. Nineteen-year-old Paxton Pomykal of FC Dallas will be hoping his recent performances domestically will book a ticket to shine with the senior team.