National Writer: Charles Boehm

Benefit or burden? USMNT begin Nations League defense

Concacaf Nations League got a mixed reception among the region’s largest and most established programs when the concept was unveiled in November 2017.

The new tournament was meant to give a helping hand to smaller nations by replacing often-meaningless friendlies with official competitive matches, thus raising the region’s overall level of play. But for the likes of Mexico and the United States, there was some frustration at the prospect of losing already-scarce opportunities to test themselves against elite opponents from Europe, South America and points further afield.

Thanks to COVID-19, the inaugural edition of the CNL didn’t conclude until a year ago this week, and the joy of the US men’s national team was palpable and authentic as they hoisted the hardware following a dramatic extra-time victory over their rivals El Tri that night in Denver. The Yanks extended that high in a dogged march to the 2021 Gold Cup title a few weeks later, building momentum heading into their ultimately successful 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

In retrospect, the event many fans feared as a hindrance turned out to be a platform for collective growth.

“This tournament helped us a lot to gain confidence in the team as a whole,” USMNT winger Paul Arriola told reporters in Spanish in a Wednesday afternoon media availability ahead of Friday’s 2022-23 CNL opener vs. Grenada in Austin (10 pm ET | ESPN+, UniMas, TUDN). “Winning this tournament for the first time was very important for us, it gave us the confidence that we can win cups and tournaments. So for us right now the most important thing is to focus on defending our title, and also trying to improve.”

In recent days multiple other players have also pointed to the value of that CNL final triumph over Mexico as a milestone and proof of concept in manager Gregg Berhalter’s team-building process.

“Each tournament was a stepping stone in the right direction for us,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said on Tuesday. “Nations League was a stepping stone for us to go into Gold Cup and have a great result, then to go into the World Cup qualifiers and obviously prevail and qualify for the World Cup. I think we're using each and every opportunity to grow as a group.”

Added fullback Reggie Cannon: “That group set the standard and it's been carried out ever since, all the way through World Cup qualifying.”

CNL also served up instructive moments like the dispiriting 2-0 group-stage loss to Canada in Toronto in October 2019, one of the low-water marks of Berhalter’s tenure and a result that seemed to prompt some tactical and personnel rethinks.

So now the Nations League is a conquest that the USMNT fully intend to defend, even if it requires matches against what are likely to be less-demanding opponents like Friday’s – which is also their final game on US soil before the World Cup proper, a de facto sendoff in which the team wishes to bring “joy and confidence,” in Arriola’s words, to their fans.

“I think anytime that you're playing for a trophy, it's a great experience. It obviously doesn't mimic a World Cup but it's a similar sense, that you're trying to accomplish a goal and win a trophy,” said Jordan Morris. “The mentality throughout the last one was great … it brought the group closer together, instilled confidence and pushed us forward, and I think that we're going to use this as a similar platform these couple of games.”

After Friday’s match the USMNT will jet to Central America for another CNL fixture, a June 14 visit to El Salvador at Estadio Cuscatlan, typically one of the loudest and most spirited environments in Concacaf and another evaluation point in the countdown to Qatar. Their group stage will conclude with two more ties next spring.

It might not get pulses racing on the level of a meeting with Uruguay or a comparably world-class opponent, but it’s another step towards the desired destination just the same.

“Nothing changes based on the opponent,” said Morris. “We go out and execute our game plan and work on the things that we want to work on in the game. Everyone's going to go out and compete and show themselves to the best of their ability.

“It comes back to the collective and getting better as a team, because there's not that many games left before the World Cup and we want to continue to take steps before that tournament.”

Who are the locked-in starters on the USMNT backline?